Usability, SatNavs and Which?

The Consumers’ Association Which? magazine  is probably not the first place to turn to when you look for usability studies. Especially not if you’re interested in computer technology – for that, there are sources such as PC Magazine on the consumer side, and professional magazines such as Interactions from Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction (SIGCHI).

And yet…

Over the past few years, Which? is reviewing, testing and recommending Satnavs (also known Personal Navigation Devices – PNDs). Which? is an interesting case because it reaches over 600,000 households and because of the level of trust that it enjoys. If you look at their methodology for testing satnavs , you’ll find that it does resemble usability testing – click on the image to see the video from Which? about their methodology. The methodology is more about everyday use and the opinion of the assessors seems to play an important role.

Link to Which Satnav video

Professionals in geographical information science or human-computer interaction might dismiss the study as unrepresentative, or not fitting their ways of evaluating technologies, but we need to remember that Which? is providing an insight into the experience of the people who are outside our usual professional and social context – people who go to a high street shop or download an app and start using it straightaway. Therefore, it’s worth understanding how they review the different systems and what the experience is like when you try to think like a consumer, with limited technical knowledge and understanding of maps.

There are also aspects that puncture the ‘filter bubble‘ of geoweb people – Google Maps are now probably the most used maps on the web, but the satnav application using Google Maps was described as ‘bad, useful for getting around on foot, but traffic information and audio instructions are limited and there’s no speed limit or speed camera data‘. Waze, the crowdsourced application received especially low marks and the magazine noted that it ‘lets users share traffic and road info, but we found its routes and maps are inaccurate and audio is poor‘ (both citations from Which? Nov 2012, p. 38). It is also worth reading their description of OpenStreetMap when discussing map updates, and also the opinions on the willingness to pay for map updates.

There are many ways to receive information about the usability and the nature of interaction with geographical technologies, and some of them, while not traditional, can provide useful insights.

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Usability of VGI in Haiti earthquake response and the 2nd workshop on usability of geographic information

On the 23rd March 2010, UCL hosted the second workshop on usability of geographic information, organised by Jenny Harding (Ordnance Survey Research), Sarah Sharples (Nottingham), and myself. This workshop was extending the range of topics that we have covered in the first one, on which we have reported during the AGI conference last year. This time, we had about 20 participants and it was an excellent day, covering a wide range of topics – from a presentation by Martin Maguire (Loughborough) on the visualisation and communication of Climate Change data, to Johannes Schlüter (Münster) discussion on the use of XO computers with schoolchildren, to a talk by Richard Treves (Southampton) on the impact of Google Earth tours on learning. Especially interesting are the combination of sound and other senses in the work on Nick Bearman (UEA) and Paul Kelly (Queens University, Belfast).

Jenny’s introduction highlighted the different aspects of GI usability, from those that are specific to data to issues with application interfaces. The integration of data with software that creates the user experience in GIS was discussed throughout the day, and it is one of the reasons that the issue of the usability of the information itself is important in this field. The Ordnance Survey is currently running a project to explore how they can integrate usability into the design of their products – Michael Brown’s presentation discusses the development of a survey as part of this project. The integration of data and application was also central to Philip Robinson (GE Energy) presentation on the use of GI by utility field workers.

My presentation focused on some preliminary thoughts that are based on the analysis of OpenStreetMap  and Google Map communities response to the earthquake in Haiti at the beginning of 2010. The presentation discussed a set of issues that, if explored, will provide insights that are relevant beyond the specific case and that can illuminate issues that are relevant to daily production and use of geographic information. For example, the very basic metadata that was provided on portals such as GeoCommons and what users can do to evaluate fitness for use of a specific data set (See also Barbara Poore’s (USGS) discussion on the metadata crisis).

Interestingly, the day after giving this presentation I had a chance to discuss GI usability with Map Action volunteers who gave a presentation in GEO-10 . Their presentation filled in some gaps, but also reinforced the value of researching GI usability for emergency situations.

For a detailed description of the workshop and abstracts – see this site. All the presentations from the conference are available on SlideShare and my presentation is below.