As part of the work on community mapping in Hackney Wick, we used the area for a project with the Development Planning Unit MSc students. As part of this work, and since we’re using Manifold GIS in this project, we offered the students the use of Manifold GIS for this exercise.
From an experienced system administrator perspective, installing the package and linking it to the licence server is a very quick and easy task. However, for the students it proved to be a difficult task – especially with Windows Vista where special procedures must be followed to enable the administrator account and install Manifold GIS. The process is rather scary for the average user, and the information architecture and links on the Manifold website are not clear enough to guide a novice, non-technical user through the installation process. As a result, many didn’t manage to make the package work. After a brief explanation and being pointed in the right direction, the installation issue was resolved.
This is a very interesting aspect of usability which, many times, is overlooked. When looking at a GIS or a component of geotechnology, it is worth evaluating its usability for different audiences. With software, I would differentiate between ‘end-user’, ‘programmer’ and ‘system manager’ usability. For each of these archetypes it is possible to evaluate whether the package is easy to use for this role. For example, programmer usability can be evaluated by examining how long it takes for a programmer to learn how to manipulate the system and perform a task with it. The new generation of APIs such as those that are used by OpenStreetMap or Google Maps are very programmer usable – it takes very little time to learn them and achieve something useful with the system.
The installation of Manifold GIS, therefore, scores high on system manager usability, but low on end-user usability – and, importantly, there are far more of the latter than the former. Some small changes to the website with a clear installation guide can improve the situation significantly, but a real change to the installation process that removes the need to switch to the administrator account is the real solution…
The Manifold training course that we ran earlier in February is always an excellent opportunity to observe how new GIS users interact with such a system.
Running a training session for new users of any GIS will expose major usability problems with the interface. Many of these problems are unnoticeable to experienced users, since they have learned the idiosyncratic aspects of the interface. Usability problems surface in such a session through misunderstandings and questions that the participants raise.
With Manifold, one of the interesting problems that came up is with the query toolbar (see below):
The way the query toolbar works is that you select a field in the left drop-down list, an operator at the central drop-down and a value in the text box on the right and click on select to see the result. For example, if you enter 5 in the toolbar in the picture, it will lead to a selection of the 5 polygons on the map with the smallest area.
The confusing part of the interface is the ‘not’ between the left drop-down and the central one. For a new user, the interface reads ‘find objects on the map where the field Area (I) are not the bottom X’. The ‘not’ in this case is a toggle button that can be activated to negate the operation that was selected in the central drop-down. Clearly, it would be better if, when not activated, it had the word ‘is’ (Area is the bottom 5) and ‘not’ appeared only when it was active. This is one of the cases where usability enhancement could be carried out in less than a minute of a programmer’s time – and surely makes life less confusing to many novice users…
UCL’s licence for Manifold GIS 8.0 finally arrived. While testing the new 64-bit version I was reminded of one of the interface features of Manifold that I believe many other GIS should have as standard – a request to verify projections when a new component is added to the project.
One of the most confusing issues for new GIS users is to use projections within their workflow. Nowadays, it is common to integrate data from different sources, such as information gathered by GPS receivers with data from the Ordnance Survey, or any other data that is using a local projection. Therefore, it is important to ensure that the system ‘knows’ what the projection of each layer and image is.
Without proper configuration when trying to put all the data together, it doesn’t work because the projection of one layer doesn’t match another layer.
In Manifold GIS, when an image or vector layer is imported, when it is opened for the first time, the system asks the user to verify the projection, and opens the interface that allows the assignment of the current projection. Unfortunately, Manifold GIS does not give the option to set the most common the default projection for the locale in which the system is used – or at least set a group of favourite projections. Room for improvement there!
As for Manifold GIS 64 bit – it seems to work faster, although it was a surprise to see that in some operations the 4 cores were not busy at 100% or even 50% even though the system loads the data slowly. Apart from that, Windows Vista 64 bit is quite incompatible with many legacy applications and it is quite a pain to use. Maybe it’s time to return to Windows XP…