Friday, October 30, 2009

Google Maps: Deteriorating Interface?

Muki Hacklay ruminates on Google Maps and Earth interfaces. He has a number of good points, firstly the quality of the original interface:
"In terms of usability, the slippy map increased the affordability of the map with direct manipulation functionality for panning, clear zoom operating through predefined scales, the use of as much screen assets for the map as possible, and the iconic and simple search box at the top. Though the search wasn’t perfect (see the post about the British Museum test), overall it offered a huge improvement in usability. It is not surprising that it became the most popular web mapping site and the principles of the slippy map are the de facto standard for web mapping interaction. "
He then goes on to note a pet hate about street view:

"However, in recent months I couldn’t avoid noticing that the quality of the interface has deteriorated. In an effort to cram more and more functionality (such as the visualisation of the terrain, pictures, or StreetView), ease of use has been scarificed. For example, StreetView uses the icon of a person on top of the zoom scale, which the user is supposed to drag and drop on the map. It is the only such object on the interface, and appears on the zoom scale regardless of whether it is relevant or available. When you see the whole of the UK for example, you are surely not interested in StreetView, and if you are zooming to a place that wasn’t surveyed, the icon greys out after a while. There is some blue tinge to indicate where there is some coverage, but the whole interaction with it is very confusing. It’s not difficult to learn, though."

I see what he's driving at but I don't really share his dislike of this feature. Sure, its an oddity but its immediately obvious how to work the functionality. I'm also happy with seeing it at all scales - sometimes I want a high level view of where streetview is available to know if I can use it in an area. On the topic of too much functionality I also wonder if the public now is so used to the basic controls (zoom, pan, slippy map, search) that it isn't much of an issue adding more functionality? Of course, it does add to screen clutter. One feature of GMaps I really don't like is the little circle above peg mans head. What does that do? Why is it there?

Muki then goes on to discuss Google Earth interface:
"There are similar issues with Google Earth – compare versions 4 and 5 in terms of ease of use for novice users, and my guess is that most of them will find 4 easier to use. The navigation both above the surface and at surface level is anything but intuitive in version 5. While in version 4 it was clear how to tilt the map, this is not the case in 5."
Here I totally agree with him. The controls in GE5 are complex and behave in odd ways. I bypass them completely when teaching about GEarth and teach people the mouse controls (Click and drag to pan, click mouse wheel and drag to rotate around a location and alter tilt, roll mouse wheel to zoom in and out). GE4 controls were much better.

On a related topic, I've talked about the usability of the layers panel in GE before

I share Muki's wish that Google don't lose sight of the value of simplicity, functionality is good but a complex interface can be unusable.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Climate Change Tours by Google: Review

This is my second post discussing the Google Earth tours which promote the Climate Change summit at Copenhagen by Google. My earlier post discussed how they used video clips instead of GEarth plugin tours here. The introductory video tour is narrated by Al Gore and there are 3 additional tours with more to follow, in this post I'll discuss just the introductory tour. I was excited to see these tours as I think using Google Earth is an excellent tool to communicate climate change science to the public (as I said in this talk).

Count the Ball passes: Before I start the review I want to make a point about attention and motion. If you haven't seen the 'count the number of basketball passes' test before watch this video and try and count the number of passes made to people wearing white shirts. Reading anything below the embedded video is cheating!:

How many were there? You're very clever. Did you notice anything else about the video? If not watch it again. The point is that in any view where multiple bodies are moving its very difficult to keep track of anything that you haven't been directed to watch. So most people viewing the video miss seeing the Gorilla walking across the screen even though under normal circumstances they would do so. For more detail on attention see no. 8 on PsyBlog. This inability to split our attention is a relevant point for our discussion as you will see.

"Confronting Climate Change" tour Review:
I felt the tour used some GEarth tools in a smart way but tried to cover too much in the time available, they may have done better to have removed some sections and cover the remaining content in more detail.

  • Excellent Commentary: Having Al Gore narrate the tours adds to their value, it carries real cachet to have him do this.
  • Good References: There are numerous footnote references to the data that was used to put together the tour. Always good to see.
  • Innovative Timeline Use: They make innovative use of the timeline - I haven't seen many tours where the authors use the timeline this much. Combining the timeline and tours has the potential to be very powerful and its used here on some data that is excellent for timeline animation (e.g. melting of the Greenland icecap)
  • Explicitly Mentioning Pause: They explicitly show users how to pause the tour and encourage people to do this. This is a very neat use of tour.
  • Tour tab control: The thumbnail icons and titles to control which tour plays are useful controls.
  • Moving Images: The tour starts with multiple images depicting climate change moving across a spinning globe. There are too many moving objects for the user to keep track of - the point the gorilla video made. Compare to this GEarth tour done by CBS where they had static images appearing above a static globe, I think the CBS one is much better.
  • Talk about what's on Screen: Towards the end of the tour the commentary doesn't relate directly to what is showing on screen: We are shown imagery of Kenya with the on screen text: "Kenya: Forest, water, Livelihoods" while Al talks about how we should "use this tool to get involved". This splits the user's attention, they don't know whether to follow the audio or visual communication and end up doing neither well. The Gorilla video is illustrates how important it is to avoid splitting attention.
  • Flights too Low and Quick: Many of the virtual flights in the tour are too quick and low for users to follow where they have been taken. Virtual flights should be looped i.e. to altitude and then back down low again and done at slower speed. This allows users to follow landmarks on screen, work out where they are and avoid becoming disorientated.
  • No annotation: At one point we are shown a time sequence of the Larsen ice shelf collapsing but it isn't clear which actual bit of the shelf is collapsing. The remedy would be to use an arrow or polygon annotation to guide the users eye to the right location. There are text annotations on the ground overlays during this part of the tour but they couldn't be read as they were too small and upside down. They should have been removed.
  • Bangladesh Scale: At 3.10 mins we are shown a view of Bangladesh flooding but because there are no landmarks it's very difficult to get a sense of the scale of the view. It needed an annotation to give a sense of scale, for example a line marking out 100 miles in distance on the ground. For an example see 30 seconds into the tour experiment I posted here where I use a 10 mile marker.
  • Antipodes Problem: One of the issues of virtual globes is that you can't see the whole world at once. At 1.32 mins into the tour an overlay is used that covers the whole globe and the globe is rotated to view how it looks. It would have been better to either use the new Google flash map API to show the world as a flat map projection and use the overlay on that or to only focus in on the changes of one part of the world as is done at 1.51 mins where the tour shows what is happening at the North pole.
  • Timeline Description: I have described this use of timeline feature as innovative, however, it was also confusing in the tour. If you are displaying a time sequence you have to describe it in the audio track so that users understand what they are seeing. We kept jumping about to different points on the time line with no proper explanation. Labels on screen were used to show the user what time the imagery related to but they weren't adequate because there was too much else going on in the view: The Gorilla effect yet again.

Climate change is the most important challenge facing humanity IMHO. GEarth is a wonderful tool to communicate the issue to the public but I think Google could improve the tours that they have yet to release.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Improving Color in Maps: Rivers of Blood

Google posted data about helping the victims of tropical storm Ketsana. This is great work, letting people see the problem in geographical context soon after the event.

Blue better for Water: However, I think the choice of colors used could be improved. They have used bright red to illustrate the flooded areas. While this attracts the eye to all the small areas its too intense for the large areas it covers. In addition, red doesn't work well to mark water cover, my first impression is that its a river of blood. Much better to choose a shade of blue and to make it translucent so you can see roughly what lies below it. To make the areas more noticeable I've outlined then in white. My version as a .kmz.

Annotation Adds Value: In looking at the data I noticed that most of the flooded areas are actually fields on free areas. Not much obvious housing seems to have been flooded. I've added a polygon which I've outlined in red and a placemark to show its location, double clicking the placemark will take you to the area of interest where there has been some housing flooded. This sort of annotation adds value to the data and encourages people to explore more for themselves IMHO.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Remembering maps and names

I have an embarassing memory for names. Not only am I always forgetting names at social events, I lose hours noodling around trying to remember who wrote a certain article so I can reference it. However, I have got a better than average spatial memory. Drop me in a city I've not been in for 10 years and I can guess my way around.

So I found it interesting to read John Naughton can remember entire layouts of golf courses from his youth, as could Sam Beckett. John was so taken by the idea this week he even made a google map of the course he first played on:

A fun read.

-- From My iPhone

Friday, October 9, 2009

Climate Change Tours by Google

Close followers of this blog may have spotted that my favourite application of Google Earth and the GeoWeb more generally is advocating action on climate change. So I'm excited to see that Google (and it seems to be my friends in Google Outreach) have released a series of tours to publicise the Copenhagen talks on climate change. I've pasted in the introductory video above.

They first published the site just as tours in the Google Earth plugin. However, I notice that they have now changed the web page to show YouTube videos of the GEarth tours with links to view the tours in Google Earth. I guess that this was because they looked at the hit logs and discovered a significant proportion of hits were from people who didn't have the Google Earth plugin and that these people then left rather than wait to download it and view the tours.

Whether this is the case or not I thought it worth discussing the pros and cons of publishing a Google Earth tour as a video rather than within Google Earth.

  1. No GE plugin: Avoid losing users who don't have the GEarth plugin installed
  2. Downloading Elements: In a GEarth tour its possible for the tour to play without a model (say) downloading properly, this leads to the model not rendering properly the first play through. In a video you avoid this.
  3. Simple Controls: Very simple controls to work a video that most users understand, in GEarth complex controls may confuse users
  1. More hassle to produce: you do the tour and then have to record it and upload it in the right format etc. etc. HowTo video a tour.
  2. Editing Problems: If you want to edit the tour you have to re-record the whole tour and repeat any video processing you did, in GEarth you just edit and upload again.
  3. Exploring Impossible: In Google Earth you can pause a tour and let people explore themselves. This isn't possible in a video. More detail on this idea in this post.
Video if you expect lots of Hits: I think the major influence on choice is about the audience size you expect. If you are expecting lots of users its probably worth recording the tour as a video as you get all the pros while you can live with the cons as they apply to the author, not the user. The exception to this is con [3].

Best of Both Worlds: In fact what Google have done is a bit of both worlds, they've provided the videos on the landing page and link through to tours within Google Earth. A nice solution but, of course, it takes more time to put together.

More Commentary coming: I have written a review of the tours already but since they've gone and changed them it will need redoing, I'll publish it soon.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Export KML from Google My Maps

I really like Google My Maps - its possible to produce a map without needing a PC powerful enough to run Google Earth. However, if you try and get your data out (to edit further in GEarth say or mashup with other data) you are linked to a network link. This opens the data in Google Earth and will automatically update any change to your Google My Map but isn't any use if you want to extract your data - it stays on Google's servers.

Barry Hunter explains a workaround here. Thanks Barry!