Thursday, 20 October 2011

The Two Maps

Two Maps: In this post I'm going to look at two maps of Southampton. The post is not a criticism of the authors mentioned, both the sets of people who come up in this post deserve praise for their work in different ways. My point is that from a user centered view we could incorporate parts of both of them to make a 3rd better map.
The Problem and Current Solutions: Visitors to my workplace, Southampton University, have to find their way to the various buildings on campus for meetings, open days and the like. To do this they can use the official map (referred to from here on as the 'cartographer's map' and which won a cartographic award) but they can also access a more recently published interactive map produced by the open data service which is based on data from the open data service, this is a project based within Southampton that aims to get the various services within the uni to open up data they have for reuse on the web.
Cartographer’s map: This was done by my colleagues in Geography in the Cartographic unit (as was) who were tasked with producing a static map of Highfield campus. Its a lovely piece of work, the stylised 3D view is elegant. It also allows users not only to orient themselves via building’s footprints but also by using tall buildings such as the maths building (NW side of campus) as landmarks which wouldn't be possible with a true 2D map. Overall it works wonderfully as a static paper map and its available from the Uni website as a PDF where users can print it out for carrying around on campus. Of course this is only one possible use, for planning a visit we could improve upon the static original by making it interactive with features such as: 
  • Searchable buildings: enter a building name to get back its location (and visa versa)
  • Layers that can be clicked on and off such as food outlets, bus stops and car parks
  • Zoomability: Zoom out of one campus (this one is Highfield campus, one of several in Southampton) to view the other ones
Open Data Map: The Open Data service has produced a map which has all the above features, as you type in a search word it also auto completes what you're searching for (I assume via AJAX) and a has a locate me button for use with mobiles. Nice work.
However, because the people who produced it are computer science postgrads they don't know much about cartography and the design is not very good. For instance, we've lost all the trees, window shapes and the 3D view that the cartographer's map had, these features all help the user orient themselves as they can act as landmarks. Also the way the icons are grouped in the key makes them unreadably small. Finally, click on a building and you usefully get a pop up balloon with a building photograph, rather less usefully you also find out who the architect was and how old the building is - not much use for your average user wanting to know where to get a coffee.
To be fair to the open data map authors, their drive seems to be about show casing how we can use open data about Southampton University. Good for them, there's a lot of hard work gone into this piece of work collecting the data together and building smart interactivity which makes it a successful experiment. But to produce a useful map suitable for planning a visit smart interactivity and open data isn't enough - usability is key and for this the design has to work as well.
Conclusion: So to come back to my original point, everyone did a good job in producing their maps in the sense that they got the stuff right that they thought was important. However, to be useful for visit planning* we need to consider the user and we could make a better map for them by combining the excellent design of the first map with the interactivity of the second.

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