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It’s Time For A Change In Mapping. Enter UX.

Late last week I kicked off enrollment in the UX Certificate Program at Bentley University. The course covers all key aspects of UX; usability testing, ethnography, mobile UX design, design interaction and other core components of UX. The content of the course is lifted from Bentley’s Masters program, Human Factors in Information Design.

Friends and colleagues have asked why? Why would a cartographer consider UX? Below I provide some context.

What is UX?

What is UX?

Source: Smashing Magazine

Smashing Magazine define UX as:

“User experience is how a person feels when interfacing with a system. The system could be a website, a web application or desktop software and, in modern contexts, is generally denoted by some form of human-computer interaction (HCI).”

So if UX is how a person feels when interfacing with a system, then how do you feel when interfacing with today’s maps, whether on your mobile phone, tablet or desktop? Good, bad, not fussed? Well I can tell you that most maps I interact with leave me pretty uninspired, frustrated and bored. Most just make me want to go “Arrgh!”


Today, maps offer a new experience, an interactive experience like never before. We are now presented with a set of digital interactions (panning, zooming, searching, filtering, overlaying etc) which was meant to make using maps a whole lot easier and more enjoyable. However, somehow we have missed the opportunity to successfully integrate these new interactions with the old school principles of mapping. From my experience, the most successful mapping projects are those that leave a long lasting positive experience with the user. Triggering dreams of travel, memories of place, and a thirst for discovering more. Without these positive feelings, maps fail, as do many other products.

Increasingly over the last 12 months I’ve watched users struggle with digital maps due to the poor experiences they offer. I find myself redesigning the experience in my head as I watch users fumble their way through the map, its menu, sliders, pop-ups and navigation tools. Users quickly lose patience and it’s driving me mad to see this continued angst towards our beautiful craft.  My frustration is not only towards how users are being forced to use maps, it’s also the experience being offered to make maps. Maps are hard enough to digest on their own (let alone make), and the last thing we should be doing is packaging them up with unusable functions and tasks, which results in a distasteful experience.

UX-ers, Devs, and Project Managers

To date, UX-ers, developers and project managers have largely been responsible for the experiences surrounding the modern map. However, very few of the UX-ers, devs or project managers have any experience in our weird (but unique) art/science/geo world. Whilst this is not uncommon this is without doubt contributing to the poor experiences. It’s time cartographers were more closely integrated into the UX process. After all we have for centuries been involved in what’s now commonly referred to as user-centered design. We have always had the user at the core of our map making process to ensure the map offers an engaging and efficient user experience. Therefore it only makes sense for us to be integrated into the new map experience – right?

What to do?

Those that know me, know that I’m quietly passionate about maps. I want my kids, and their kids to be able to enjoy and respect the new age of mapping applications like I used to with print maps & atlases, like we all used to. I want them to have the same emotional feeling I had when maps were made by hand (so-to-speak). I want them to be able to use the new age map seamlessly anywhere in the world, online, offline, with old and new devices, indoor or outdoor, day or night, touch or no touch and I want them to be able to walkaway with a sense of satisfaction, accomplishment and joy.

There lies a great challenge ahead to try and bring back the old school positive feeling of map use. I get the sense we know what our users need to be doing, we just haven’t delivered a seamless way of doing it. Over the next 12-18 months I’ll be plotting a (slow) path to improving the experience provided by the modern map, by increasing my knowledge in UX (in a formal manner), and integrating myself in all types of UX geo projects on mobile, tablet and desktop.

Let’s be clear here for a minute.  Not all new age maps offer poor experiences. Google offers a map experience that in my opinion is unrivaled.  But it’s not perfect, no map is. But why can’t there be more like Google? (OK, so there’s probably a few worthy reasons why (resources, talent, big budgets etc), but you get what I mean). So what impact, if any can I have? Start small, go big – springs to mind. Start by getting back to basics to ensure the core functionality of map use is enjoyable again (search, navigation, adding overlays to maps, etc).

The UX certificate program at Bentley will provide me with a sound platform for exploration into the field of user experience, interaction, visual design and mobile UX. It may just shed some light on how to improve the experience of our modern day maps, otherwise we might be heading towards a dark period in map history! It’s time to start providing users with a more intuitive, coherent and positive map experience, and I hope to be a part of that change.


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