Maps - a microcosm of UX issues
June 2, 2001
Had brunch with Peter Merholz, who's recently gotten intrigued by the usability issues of maps. Apparently there's little research on how effective they are—and Peter suspects that they aren't nearly as useful as they could be. Regardless, maps are an interesting microcosm of UX issues.

Aside from the obvious issues of visual information design, maps pose similar issues to the ones UXs face. There's issues of the proper scale and detail—which can be driven by personal preferences as much as the information contained in the map. Both Peter and a friend of his who joined for brunch love maps and love to use detailed maps as possible when they're travelling.

In contrast, a friend of mine who recently moved to LA loves the simple tourist map that lists only major streets and landmarks over the hefty Thomas Guide found in most Angelos' cars. And a friend of mine who moved to Boston laments the area doesn't have any maps as well organized as our beloved "Tommy Guides." Apparently, the Boston mapmakers prefer to organize their maps alphabetically rather than geographically so that Medford is listed next to Marblehead even though they're miles apart…

And then there's issues of how and where maps get used. My sailing charts are nicely color-coded to highlight certain features, but since there expensive I don't take them on the boat, I take black-and-white copies that I can draw courses over and throw away when done. On the other hand, many sailors will annotate their charts with notes, use markers to highlight navigation hazards such as reefs, and draw sketches of landmarks in the margins.

But probably the maps with the most information density are aeronautical charts and needless to say pilots can't pull over to the side of the road…especially when charts are most needed: at night and during bad weather. It would be interesting to find out whether the makers of aeronautical charts have consciously addressed these issues. ::

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