Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Tufte ideas on Google Earth Projects II

In an earlier post of mine I commented about a blog post by John Krygier about Edward Tufte. I can now proudly present part 2;

Commandment 4: Minimise Map Crap
Map crap is everything that gets in the way of the purpose of the map. John points the finger at Big, honkin’ north arrows, fancy borders, fake 3-D effects, and black graticules (they should be grey or another subtle colour). As it happens with Google Earth all of these are provided by the program with little or no control given to the user, except 3-D effects. So apart from the use of 3D (discussed here), map crap isn't a problem that has transferred from static maps to Virtual Globes.

John's opinion is that for a map that is for advertising, promotion or fun map crap has a place because a minimalist map is austere. He has a point but if the map crap gets in the way of the central message, it needs to be removed.

Commandment 5: Map Layout Matters
This is a big topic in virtual globes. IMHO Authors of Google Earth Projects have a responsibility to set up views in which certain layers are turned on, some are turned off and a certain camera viewpoint is taken, I call these 'picture frames'. They help the user 'get' the message of the project whilst not stopping him/her from exploring the data themselves to see if they agree with you, an advantage over a static map.

John thinks its an issue for static maps too but says its too abstract a topic to encapsulate in a short post. I think he's right, getting layout correct is where map making drifts away from science into art.

Commandment 6: Evaluate your Map
This is the one area I really haven't covered yet in this blog; the importance of user testing. My view is mostly inherited from Steve Krug (related interview) in 'Don't make me think'. His points were written for commercial web pages but they apply just as well to Google Earth projects;
- Test with users early in a project and often
- Quick and dirty testing will find the big problems with your project
- Quick and dirty = 3 typical users for 1 hour looking at your project
- Just sit with them while they navigate your Google Earth project prompting them if they get really stuck asking lots of 'what are you thinking now?' questions.
- Analysis of the test should also be quick, if a report is needed a side of A4 is enough. Avoid longer tests as this cuts into the ability to test frequently.

John also discusses evaluation by peers (getting people around you to comment on your work) and documentation of design. I think for Virtual Globes neither of these are anywhere near as useful as user testing because the technologies are so new. You may have produced a well documented project that all your colleagues but find that it sucks as far as users are concerned. This is because there are no norms of what a Google Earth project should look like at the moment, as the Geo Web develops this time will pass, norms will appear and peer/documentation based evaluation will become more important.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

EarthBooker Icons

Screenshot of EarthBooker.com's icons

Lauren Steely emailed to point me at www.earthbookers.net with an example of bad icon design. S/he writes:

You load the kml feed and it displays the locations of hotels in your current view. Opening the Info box, you can see that they’ve tried to indicate the price ranges of the hotels with thin, barely distinguishable colored outlines on the icons. Rather than using four distinct, intuitive colors (red, orange, yellow, green? A color ramp or heat scale?), they’ve elected to go with an inscrutable white, bronze, silver, gold scheme. Not only are these colors difficult to intuitively visualize as a gradation, but the silver is nearly indistinguishable from the white, while the gold and bronze are nearly as difficult to tell apart.

Yes, some kudos is due to earthbookers for incorporating kml into their service but the design could be better just as Lauren points out. I'd add another grumble, there's no instructions so you have no way of knowing that as you zoom in other hotels will appear.

Thanks Lauren, if anyone else wants to send me interesting good or bad examples of Google Earth design then please do.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Audio Tour: Paleo Channels of the Nile

I did say the next post would continue on from the last. What a fibber, I've got engrossed in the potentials of audio.

Evoca is a web service which allows you to record audio clips painlessly direct to the web. It creates a little player and courteously creates a string of flash based code which you can paste into a placemark to add audio to your placemarks.

1] Create a Google Earth file you wish to add commentary to.
2] Sign up to Evoca, record some audio clips. Instructions are on the site. It helps to view Google Earth as you record them so you know what to say.
3] From 'My recordings' select the sound clip you wish to paste into GE. Copy the text in the "For your website" box
4] Paste into the 'Description' box of a placemark/folder/polygon etc.

All very clever but is it worth the effort? Isn't text good enough? I would say audio is worth it because of an effect called 'change blindness'. If your eyes have to zoom from commentary text to Google Earth view and back to commentary view it is more difficult to remember the connection between the two. Try and spot the difference between the images here. Most people find it difficult to spot the bank appearing whereas if there was no blank screen (an analogy to the sweep of your eyes between bubble and text) between the two images you would notice the change immediatly. Using audio avoids this problem.

Screen Shot from the Audio Tour

So I did all this yesterday and then read Frank's post about the National Geographic project that uses 'balloonFlyTo' feature of Google Earth. I decided the combination of Evoca and this feature could be used to create a nice audio tour:

Paleo Channels of the Nile

Click the first placemark and then click 'next' in each bubble to be taken around. Note that I put in a separate fly to and audio step to avoid people trying to listen while the screen was still moving around in front of them. It could do with some tidying up but you can get the gist of the idea, its a solution to the lack of tour functionality I mentioned in my video post.

Backstory: In 1999 I started a PhD at Leeds University on Paleo Channels of the Nile. I didn't complete it for reasons I won't go into but I did have a satellite image of the area in the audio tour that I spent hours pouring over. I zoomed into the area using Google Earth to see what was there recently and it was wonderful to be able to see the individual houses having spent so long wondering what all the dots were about. More information on the fascinating archeology.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Tufte ideas on Google Earth Projects

A lot of work time is going on interesting project bids and teaching duties at the moment hence the lack of posts. All the projects involve Google Earth in some way so I may post some details in the future.

For now I wanted to review a post by John Krygier on 'how useful is Tufte for making maps'. Edward Tufte is a major influence of mine so its interesting hearing what John has to say and then comparing his ideas about static maps to my own on how Tufte can be applied to Virtual Globes.

John starts out by stating 20 Tuftesque rules from one of Tufte's text books, his points 14, 15 and 16 (Maximize data-ink ratio, Erase non-data ink and Erase redundant data-ink) seem to be repetitions to me but never mind, there's a lot of interesting advice in the list. He then combines these into 6 map making commandments, I'll comment on 3 of these today with relation to map making in virtual globes and the rest in a later post.

Commandment 1: Map Substantial Information
As I pointed out in the launch podcast for this blog it is possible by thinking carefully about design, to layer many different types of data onto one map. This is as true for virtual globe maps as it is for paper maps, however, with Google Earth we have the ability to turn different data on and off. I think this leads to a lot of sloppiness amongst those building Google Earth projects, the impact of what data layers look like to when combined is not always considered. My post on folders as picture frames expands this point, having to turn layers on and off adds complexity to a user's experience. It's better if we design layers to look clear when combined.

Commandment 2: Don’t Lie with Maps
I have to say that with all the Google Earth projects I've looked at I've never thought so far that someone is trying to mislead me. However, it is entirely possible to present the data in a way that misleads in a virtual globe. For example, by reducing the size of the oil well icon in the Sierra Club project on the Artic the interpretation is that the oil wells are less of a problem even thought the data is exactly the same:

normal sized icons

Reduced size icons representing oil wells

Commandment 3: Effectively Label Maps
Most project designers in Google Earth rely on keys and on balloon information to explain data. I have seen someone label the timeline to try and help users control it correctly via a screen overlay but otherwise I haven't seen anyone adding labels in an overlay image. I think it could be a good design practice.

Commandments 4 to 6 in the next post.