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Human Factors Case Analysis – Google Maps

As part of my Bentley University UX studies, I was recently required to put together a short case study on the Human Factors (HF) and User Experience (UX) of Google Maps. The analysis was to take no more than 4-5 pages. The case study was to address the following:

  1. Theories and principles outlines in class.
  2. Focus on user experience, usability, and high value goals of the user.
  3. Address biological and cognitive strengths and weaknesses of the product.
  4. Offer recommendations for improvement.


>> Software Product: Google Maps for Desktop


User needs: Navigation, search, explore

User values: Accuracy, completeness, currency (up-to-date)

Audience: A billion people use Google maps every month [1]. The audience using Google Maps is extraordinarily diverse spanning many different cultures, age groups, learning abilities and contextual behaviors.

Environment: For the purpose of this Case Analysis I will cover Google Maps for Desktop, in map view only.

• Users primarily visit Google Maps (for desktop) at home, or at work.
• Users of Google Maps at work will mostly be using the product in a well-lit environment, while at home the lighting conditions may vary.
• It is unknown if the types of tasks completed by the user will vary between the home user and office user.
• It is assumed that the majority of the users will use a mouse and keyboard to interact with the product, while seated at a desk or table.
• Users will be using the application at a comfortable viewing distance of ~30 inches +/- 10 inches. It is assumed the viewing angle of most screens will be ~30 degrees +/- 10 degrees.
• The size of desktop monitors will vary from user to user, ranging from 17” to 30”. Users monitor resolution may vary from 72 ppi to 109 ppi (Apple’s Thunderbolt Display). Various brightness, contrast and gamma settings will be used across desktop screens.

1. Sensory System: “Managing attention resources through effective signal design”

Google Maps primarily uses a set of visual cues to enable the users to search, navigate and explore the map. The design is subtle yet effective. Below are some examples of how Google manage the attention resources of its users.

• It is important that users can quickly identify the major routes and important roads on a map as it allows them to orient themselves and begin exploring the map. On Google Maps the two most important road classifications (motorways and highways) are shown in yellow, and orange (see Figure 1 below). Both of these colours provide good visibility under a broad range of luminance, and are likely to get the brain’s attention first.

Google Maps
Figure 1: Google Maps, in map view (Sydney)

• The background of the map is almost a pure hue (~30), with little saturation (~6%), and almost full brightness (~90%). This neutral background provides strong contrast against the highly saturated ‘orange’ and ‘yellow’ roads. This colour combination provides a well-structured figure ground relationship between the background (land) and the two most important road categories, which enables users to focus on what’s important first.

• Traditional road classifications have typically included red-ish hues for major roads. Google have ignored these traditional conventions because they realize that they could potentialy confuse those who are colour blind, which for this product could amount to 80 million users per month.

• The overall colour scheme used in Google Maps is one of almost full brightness (~85% – ~90%) with very little saturation (~5% – ~20%). This well-balanced colour scheme provides little fatigue to the user, by avoiding bright and bold colours.

Recommendation – Google Maps could consider introducing a colour to the secondary roads at large scales in order to provide more contrast between the secondary roads and the local streets (see Figure 2 below). A lack of contrast may provide some fatigue to users over a prolonged period of time.

Google Maps

Figure 2. Google Maps makes it difficult to distinguish between secondary and local streets at large scales by only varying the line width to distinguish between the two road classes.

2. Pre-Attentive Processing: “Provide structure, sense of place, and appropriate stage for launching the experience”

Our real-world environment is littered with noise, and the geography we live in is somewhat unorganized. This environment can be challenging for Cartographers because there is little they can do to adjust the layout of the real-world structures, their shape and size. It is therefore important that cartographers use well-understood principles that guide pre-attentive processing.

• Google Maps use a standard cartographic convention by aligning the labels of linear features to the objects rotation. For example, road labels follow the direction of the feature, as do ferry line and river labels. This alignment helps us quickly process that label A belongs to linear feature A. Without this alignment it is more difficult for the pre-attentive system to make an association between feature and label.

• For some features on the map, like parks and water areas Google have used colours, which have connotative meaning; parks – green, water – blue. This means that the majority of users should be able to immediately detect what type of features they are purely by processing the colour only.

• Google uses a unique line width for each road class on the map. For example the local roads are all the same width, as are the motorways and highways. By using a constant width for each road category Google provides a structured and uniform user experience.

Recommendation – Google could shorten its carriage return settings at larger scales in order to improve the proximity of their point of interest (poi’s) labels with their poi icons (see Figure 3 below). This would reduce the length of labels and stack them on two lines, bringing them closer to the icon as if they are almost a group. Single line labels that contain three words or more are visually disconnected from the icon (see The Castlereagh Boutique & Georges Café Piccadilly labels).


Figure 3. Some of Google’s poi labels could be split onto two lines to better group the label and icon together.

3. Mental Models: “Map to the users’ experience base and expectation – support top –down processing”

In order for their maps to maintain meaning in so many different parts of the world Google maps have been very careful about the symbology they use on their maps in order to not confuse their global audience. Supporting vastly different levels of prior knowledge (from novice to expert) spread across many different cultures is an ongoing challenge for Google. Below are some of the ways they are addressing these challenges.

• In many cases Google have used ISO icons for many of the points of interest icons (poi’s) on their map. For example, the eating icon features a knife and fork, and the sleeping icon features a person sleeping on a bed. Our long-term memory means we can match these icons with previous experiences quickly, and without having to use loads of pre-attentive processing. Where Google has used non-standard icons (for commercial sites – the square in a circle icon) it much harder to assign meaning to the icon because we don’t have a reliable match in our memory.

• The legibility of most maps is heavily influenced by the typographic arrangement, and selection used on the map. In order to create a map that is easy to read and aesthetically pleasing Google have used a variety of typographic sizes, forms (italic, regular), colour and case (UC, Ulc). This typographic variation creates a strong contrast between quantitative map features (important and less important features – local road labels v motorway labels), and qualitative features (different types of features – streets v place names). Without this variation it is difficult to quickly encode the differences between features easily.

Recommendation – Google use a traditional North American rail line symbol (Figure 4 below). Users from different parts of Europe and SE Asia will likely associate these lines as freight lines, as opposed to commuter lines which many of them are. Google Maps may need to deployed localized map styles in areas that have unique requirements in order to meet the expectation of users mental models in these parts of the world.

Google Maps Rail Line Symbol

Figure 4. Google’s use of traditional North American rail line symbols may not sync up with some of their international users mental models.

4. Cognitive Skills:  “Identify and support relevant meta-cognitive activity”

A ‘good’ map is said to have many different layers (levels) of information within the one map view or scale. By creating a hierarchy of significance within the map cartographers create a structure, which can support various learning styles and tasks.

• In order for users to navigate and explore the map users need to be able to locate where they are, or where they are going (and to reduce the anxiety of getting lost!). Users will commonly use landmarks such as city labels, parks, or road networks that they are familiar with to orient themselves. Google Maps uses a variety of visual variables to manage the prominence of these key map features so users can explore the map in a top-down approach. For example city labels (at large scales) are set to uppercase which effectively moves them to the upper most part of the visual hierarchy so they get noticed first.

• Google Maps almost exclusively use upper and lower case labels (Ulc). Ulc labels take up a less space on the map, and they are quicker to interpret. Overall Google uses a very simple and conservative label structure, which appeals to both low literacy and high literacy users.

Recommendation – Through some scales of the map the visual hierarchy used for place names breaks down which makes it difficult to search for a place and may cause a delay in any decision making process (Figure 5). Some further granularity in size, or colour could be introduced to better separate the important places from the not so important places.

Google Maps Placenames
Figure 5. A lack of place name visual hierarchy makes it difficult to identify the more important place names.

5. Memory Systems:  “Manage and support workload at a level appropriate to user population”

Google Maps use a careful process of feature selection at each scale to ensure the users memory system is not overwhelmed when using the map. Below are some examples of how Google manage and support the appropriate level of information in support of the users common task (navigation, search, explore).

• When users are new to a place, and are trying to orient themselves they are using their working memory. Users are processing discrete pieces of information, and are often impatient during this time. Google manage this initial 20 sec processing period by delivering only the required UI features and content relevant to the user. For example, they provide a very clear and prominently position search box for user to navigate directly to their destination (without panning and zooming) and they withhold other common map features that are not required to support this initial exploration of the map. Additional map information like traffic flow and photos can be accessed through out-of-the-way buttons on the UI.

• In order to support long-term memory function Google use a standard map style (as discussed earlier in the analysis). This enables users to link to their existing body of knowledge of map styles, which makes orientating and understand the place more efficient.

Recommendation – Google are attempting to personalize the map in order to only present the information that is relevant to each user. This effectively filters irrelevant information out of view, and only displays what needs to be stored in the working and long-term memory of each user. The challenge for Google lies in knowing that I don’t regularly visit cafe’s, or perhaps restaurants that serve steak (as currently shown on the map). There is some opportunity here for Google to improve their personalization by integrating data from my Google Wallet account in order to deliver the map features I’m most likely to require based on purchases made through my Wallet account.


Figure 6. A more personalized approach to the content of the map will reduce the redundant information required to process in working memory.

6. Emotions: “Manage anxiety, consider motivational effects, and design an appropriate emotional experience”

The unstructured and often unfamiliar geographical representation of a place produces a natural level of anxiety in all users. Google maps have minimized anxiety and therefore reduced the strain on the working memory by:

• Using familiar icons, connotative colours, and standard linear symbology.
• Reducing unnecessary types of information at each scale through a process of selection (i.e. no traffic information unless selected by user).
• Introducing information to the user gradually as they zoom in. Google Maps have been successful at not giving the user everything at once, which potentially frees up the working memory to consume other chunks of information.

• Google Maps have arguably the most up-to-date and complete global map of the world. This quality of information and coverage is unrivalled and instills loyalty and trust to the user.

• Users get great pleasure at arriving at their destination without getting lost or sent through an area where they felt threatened, or having experienced heavy traffic. These consistently reliable results bring much pleasure to the user.

Recommendation – Google are already working on wearable technology (Google Glass) which integrates your real world field of view with augmented reality. I’m sure that users will experience great delight when they are able to drape directions, and information about a place onto their field of view (without taking their eyes off the road, so-to-speak). This will provide an unrivaled experience for the place you are currently in. The next challenge is to match that experience for places you intend to travel to, or wish to explore. For example, how can we provide an environment where one can truly experience a place without going there?

Ultimately Google should be trying to answer the following question to completely fulfill the needs of their users: Q: Given the time of day, and where I am, and what environment I’m in, what geographical information am I likely to require?


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