Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Hallway Testing

In my AGU talk the other day I end by saying that the most important point to remember about design in virtual globes is that although I have lots of ideas about what works in Google Earth to make good design, testing is the final word on effectiveness. I recommend Steve Krug's book 'don't make me think', it was an inspiration to me about web page design at the time where Google Earth was a twinkle in Michael Jones' eye and most of the principles map across to Google Earth projects.

I find the technique of testing I outline has been written up in peer reviewed literature and is actually known as hallway testing from the idea that if you pull 6 people randomly from any hall way and quickly use them to test your application/web page/Google Earth project you can identify 95% of usability errors.

I also looked up paper prototyping, a technique that I came across in the Open University (UK) where you prepare web pages scribbled on bits of paper and model how it would work as a web page by switching paper sheets when the paper buttons are pressed. Not only effective but a lot of fun. Robin Good has a good intro.

Like tidying your office and managing your time properly testing is not something people are naturally drawn to do but they reap the rewards if they do.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Contextual help - BestTos

So when I was at AGU in December I met a few people from Google. After my talk, one of them who had some responsibility for KML asked me 'how could we change the design of KML to incorporate your ideas on design?'. KML, for those who don't know, is the type of code that Google Earth uses to record the data that it lays on top of the satellite data. The question really stumped me, most of what I talk about on this blog could be best promoted by Google Earth staff changing the Google Earth tutorials, some changes in the way the Google Earth itself works could also help (e.g. timelines) but changing how KML works doesn't really help. I've had a long think but I still can't think of any major changes worthy of mention. However, it did get me thinking about how to change Google Earth the program to help design.

The idea I came up with is contextual help. The program I know this from is Moodle, an open source Learning Environment, it has little orange question mark icons, the screen shot below shows you one and the the window that opens when clicked.

Contextual Help Screen Shot from Moodle

Its a neat way to show help: not sure what an option means? Click the yellow question mark to find out directly rather than having to look it up in help. Nice. But wait! contextual help does more, it mixes in best practice as I've circled in red, so it not only tells you how to do something but how best to do it as well. This would work wonders in Google Earth, when you are designing a placemark you could have a little contextual link by the icon button which tells you some basics of how to design an icon well with links to more details on a web page somewhere.

In fact that's a term that we should see more of, there are lots of 'how to' blog posts (or HowTos) but we also need BestTos.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Talk: Design in Google Earth

As promised, this is a link to an movie clip version of my talk at the American Geophysical Union(AGU) last month:

In it I use as an example a Google Earth project by Mark Mulligan who designed it primarily to be used by experts rather than the public. This link opens my new version.

Tree Cover Change Tour

I've added a few tour placemarks, the idea is that users open the file, read the introduction, get shown what they can see with the data and then go on to explore themselves. I talked to Mark about using his file and he was interested in what I've done with his work. It made me look again at the huge volume of material he has produced and I found some gems that I'll be using in the near future.

Technical Notes on Talk: I produced this by recording my PowerPoint presentation with Captivate software and converting it to flash as it allows me to capture the custom animation features of my talk. If anyone knows a way to capture these features and convert to a web friendly format, I'm interested to hear how.

Presentation Points: I think the presentation works well overall, its shorter than the original and I avoid the natural hiccups that would occur if it had been recorded live. However, recording narration slide by slide leads to my voice changing within the talk and I still have to work on a way to sound less wooden.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Think Old Newspapers

So last week I was involved in the a conference call with various people about the IPY Google Earth project. We were discussing how to promote the project further, a consensus that seemed to come out of the discussion was that there were some key stories that would be very attractive to the public that weren't being brought to the fore. For example, Frank Taylor of Google Earth Blog suggested talking to the National Snow and Ice Data Center about bringing in their layer showing the recent retreat of arctic sea ice.

The content in the IPY layer is good already, its just the best stories aren't most apparent. Rather like a newspaper, its key to emphasize the big stories on the front page.

Old Newspaper layout

Think about all the immediate rules that you interpret from the layout of this Newspaper: newspaper title at the very top (Cheboygan Daily Tribune), headline is the biggest font near the top(Japs Declare War on U. S.), summary of the headline story is underneath (Jap Planes bomb both Hawaii and Guam) and photos relate to the columns of text they are close too.

Designers should be looking for the central narrative that they are trying to present to the public and emphasize it. At the current time we haven't evolved the 'norms' of how this should be done in a virtual globe such as Google Earth but, as with newspaper design, that will evolve.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Cartography, Mash-ups and Google Earth

Head's up on future posts: Lots of interesting things in the pipeline: material from my AGU talk, yesterday I was involved in a conference call with the creators of the International Polar Year (IPY) project and I could do with following up on my dafur post from last year.

Amusing map from Richard's talk, from 1902

Today I want to discuss a talk by Richard Fairhurst from the Open Street Map (OSM) project meeting in July (sound file and slides). I came across it because of the title; 'Why mash-ups suck and cartography matters'.(definition of mash up). IMHO the talk can be summarized into;
1 - Google map type mash-ups are useful in lots of situations (example given: Slide 4 adding speed cameras to a road map in the UK)
2 - Because google map mash-ups rely on adding layers onto a base layer you can only add so many layers before you soon reach a limit to their use
3 - In complex map situations you need to revert to cartographic techniques, mash-ups are no longer effective. (example given: Slide 8 and 9, London Tube map which is true to tube connections rather than map scale, which makes for a more useful map)
4 - Building a map with OSM is the best way to present complex data because you can access the base data, this enables you to customize the map, this cannot be done with google maps and other mapping systems.

I think Richard is right in a lot of ways, it is true that google map mash-ups are ineffective in many situations. I also think that bringing in knowledge and techniques from traditional cartography is vital to increase the quality of the online maps that are rapidly appearing throughout the web. Slides 10 and 11 from his talk are all great examples of how cartography can be used to improve web based maps.

However, Richard only refers to google maps, he doesn't mention Google Earth in his discussion. Google Earth can be used to build complex, interactive maps without the need to use complex mash-ups and so is much more accessible for public use. It can also be used as a holder so users can locate a small map within a larger area.

Good Cartographic Design map imported into Google Earth. Slide 19.

OSM is an important project but I think the average 'dabbler' with maps will be put off by the difficulty of using it compared with Google Earth, whatever the copyright advantages. If you download the .kmz


I produced you can also see I started producing an alternative to the above map using Google Earth tools, it wouldn't be as good for paper printing but it was very easy to do.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Back in the Saddle, Horse required

Sorry for the silence, I had hoped to do some posting over the holidays but broadband access was dire at my folks house so I gave up trying. I'm raring to catch up with email and all the interesting Google Earth contacts and links I made at AGU, however, I'm kind of limited by a broadband shut down we have in the University at the moment. I can only access the web from my ropey broadband at home.

Ho hum.