Monday, May 12, 2008

2005 - 2015: the Lost Decade of Neo-Geography?

Google Earth can be thought of as a geo-browser , it shares a lot of characteristics with a web browser but is based on a map paradigm rather than a book paradigm. If you are prepared to accept this comparison then its sensible to wonder if the the usability development of the geo-web will follow that of the web. I've been reading a lot of Jakob Nielsen
material recently, he's a web usability expert and has talked about the history of the web:
We [usability experts] have now harvested most of the low-hanging fruit from the truly horrible websites that dominated the lost decade of Web usability (approximately 1993–2003). In those early years, Web design was abominable...

Clarity Point: we're discussing the usability of user created content here, not the usability of Google Earth itself, that's another matter and is beyond the user's control.

Abominable Web Design (follow the link to see it properly)
found via

I think there are some truly horrible Google Earth projects out there just as there were terrible web sites in the early years of the lost decade. It's true that there is less flexibility to create awfulness in Google Earth than in a browser, for example with Google Earth you can't create your own navigation bar (or at least its very difficult to do). However, there are many published google earth projects where little or no thought has gone into design: introductions are long winded, icons don't stand out when clumped together, thick lines in intense colors have been used when thin neutral lines would have been better and so on. IMHO the usability quality of the geo-web so far is following that of the web pretty much to the letter.

In answer to this point a common reply is: 'we're just experimenting with a new format with Google Earth and Google Maps, worrying about design would hamper our innovation'. Its a fair point, I think innovation is important. But Jakob goes on to make another point that is apt, it's about conversion rate, which is the number of web site visits that are converted to actual sales for a commercial web site:
At the height of the first dot-com bubble, a common conversion rate was 1%. Today, 2% is a common conversion rate.
An increase of 1% to 2% doesn't sound that convincing, however, it represents an increase of 100% in sales. At present there aren't many organizations out there selling via Google Earth but there are many organizations who are using it as an outreach tool or a way to access donations, I suspect organizations who haven't considered design could increase the effectiveness of their work ( measured in whatever way they choose) by tens of percent if they spent more time improving the design of their materials.

Google Earth has been out for 3 years, I hope it doesn't take another 7 until people wake up and smell the coffee.

1 comment:

Maarten L said...

I'm a Google Earth enthusiast and recently put up a website to publish the Google Earth content I create. You can find it at
I'm a big fan of your blog, I learn a lot from it and try to implement things you write about.
Any comments on my kmz files would be very welcome. I hope they don't classify for, :-).
Kind regards,