Friday, May 27, 2011

Tours User Testing

Earlier this year I did some user testing on Tours in Google Earth investigating my thoughts on best practices for producing tours in a more detailed fashion. Volunteers watched simple tours which flew them from one placemark to another via a variety of paths. The placemarks were then switched off and, from a high view, users were asked to identify where the markers were.

Preliminary results show some interesting outcomes that should be bourne in mind when producing Google Earth Tours (GETs):

Speed: Double click a placemark in Google Earth and you will be flown into a closer view at the default speed. We flew students around at that speed, twice as fast and half as slow but to little effect, students across the 3 speeds performed similarly whatever speed was used.

I've often worried that I'm flying students too fast for them to follow where they're flying from or to within a GET. It seems for simple paths, students can be flown surprisingly fast and still follow what's happening.

Overview: The paths used flew students from placemark to placemark at a high altitude with both placemarks clearly in view at the same time and also along the same route but at a lower altitude without being able to see both placemarks at the same time. Not having an overview dramatic reduced students abilities to recall placemark locations.

In terms of best practices this leads us to suggest that unless you have good reason not to, virtual flight segments within a GET should always include a mid point overview showing both placemarks in view if this does not naturally occur.

Distance vs Direction: Students proved good at tracking the direction they were following but were less good at guessing the overall distance between placemarks. Evidence for this is less clear but it may be worthwhile reminding students of scale when they are at overview points so they can get a sense of overall distances between map elements.

I'm writing the results up more formally for those interested.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Google IO talk on Maps Usability

I was interested to watch the Google IO video above of Designing Maps Applications for Usability on Mobile and Desktop by Luke Mahé, Jez Fletcher, Justin O'Beirne as a while back I had a go at presenting my own map design ideas to developers. The other week I said I've stopped critically reviewing other people's projects but when Googlers stand up and present about map usability I think some critical discussion is deserved. Here's some thoughts in note form:

Stuff I liked:
  • Mobile vs Desktop: I don't do much with mobile maps so it was interesting to have the differences between mobile and desktop discussed, I liked the idea that users on the desktop are 'planning'
  • Rendering Speed: Fast response is an integral part of the UX (user experience), I haven't really thought about this before except for very slow rendering maps so the discussion at 21 mins in was useful.
  • Emphasising: Justin's points about how to use the GMaps API to demphasise uneeded map elements (30mins onwards) were smart and well made. I liked his examples of both good and bad maps.
  • White roads for routes I especially liked Justin's point about making roads white for route focussed maps (36 mins), he's right that it emphasises the route well.
Stuff I didn't:
  • Placemark Clustering: At 14.29 Jez and Luke promote the idea that a placemark clustering visualisation is better than not clustering points. Strictly they're correct as it is a way of tackling the 'too many points' problem but I think placemark clustering is flawed and not as good as other techniques. It should be said that this is my opinion - it may be that the clustering they show is actually a very effective technique, the proof would be a user test (which I will have a student looking at later this summer). My point is you shouldn't promote an unproven technique.
  • Walk the Walk: It would have been good if the heat map Jez and Luke presented at at 14.58 had heeded Justin's smart advice and faded the background so the mix of colors stood out. To be fair, I guess it wouldn't have been straight forward to do this as it was a fusion tables map visualisation rather than a straight instance of the maps API but it can't be that difficult.
  • Missing Topics: So they covered a lot of topics but there's a of UX things that IMHO are relevant to developers that I discussed but which failed to get a mention: Layer control, Icon design (although they did point out that you should choose useful icons rather than just use the default markers), use of color, balloon design, map copy/micro-copy and introductions.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Google IO 2011

I've never been to Google IO, I'm told the tickets are v difficult to get but looking at the recordings of the sessions, it could be one to think about for the future.

Mano Marks and Sean Askay on High Perfomance KML is excellent so far, I've only got part way through but Sean has already shown some combinations of Tours and the timeslider, update to change the elevation of polygons and a GPS track and heart rate visualisation that I want to play with. Sean's also launched a new site with similar content that I'm going to be watching.

I'm also watching a video on fusion tables which has some good new features about the fusion table/google maps tie up.

Credit to Google for getting this all recorded and released so quickly.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Does 3D suck?

I was on a road trip holiday the week before last and before I left I read this James Fee blog post he has an image of Godzilla walking into electricity pylons with the tag line 'Google Earth keeps bumping into things trying to work out why it is here'. This led me to ruminate and I quickly wandered from James' post about GEarth enterprise to the more general 'what is Google Earth good for?'. I considered features such as
  • layer control
  • zooming
  • time animation
but, powerful those these are for visualisation, they are all also available in Google Maps and are just as much 2 as 3D*. What truly sets a virtual globe apart from web mapping is 3D and this is what I ended up ruminating on most of all:

Current Uses of 3D. I don't have much time for fancy graphics, so beyond cool looking 3D flights, what does 3D in Google Earth actually add to understanding at the moment? There are several examples:
  • 3D buildings: Populating a city with 3D models adds a lot of value to urban geography, you can see what a skyline looks like or enhance what you've seen on a walk through a foreign city by revisiting your walk in GEarth later. 3D trees are available in GEarth too but I don't think they're nearly as useful as the buildings.
  • Mountains and Valleys: When considering topics where topography is important a 3D view can add understanding. The Appalachian Mountain removal project is a perfect example as the location of the mines on the tops of the mountains is key to understanding the problem.
  • Earth Science Models: 3D models of large scale processes on our planet such as subducting plate margins and hurricanes can add understanding, see the project I'm working on with Old Dominion University and others.
  • Streetview and Panoramas: Streetview and gigapan panoramas come close to giving a realistic 3D view of a scene. Streetview enables you to move from location to location whilst a gigapan allows you to zoom in on interesting features of the panorama.
IMHO the Streetview/Panorama example is the most important of these. However, the 3D visualisations discussed above are far less common on the web than the uses of 2D like data mashups, real time maps and map related infographics.

Future Uses of 3D: But what is available now may not be the whole story. Can we imagine a use for 3D in the future that is the 'killer app?'. Here's some possible future uses:
  • Real 3D Earth Science Models: Currently the way to present a 3D geology model is to slide it out of the ground to give the viewer the idea that its come from underground. It works pretty well but it would be good to be able to fly beneath the earth's surface and show models in their real situation.
  • Thematic 3D data: I've frequently discussed 3D thematic maps on this blog, mostly unfavourably. However, the 'Obama: One People' visualisation I discuss here looks to me like it really adds something, I think 3D thematic maps could be useful visualisations but they remain unproven - no one has done user tests on them.
I can foresee that Streetview and similar panoramas will improve in time with real time 360 views and developments like Microsoft's streetslide helping make them more usable. Beyond that, neither of the topic areas listed above is convincing as a killer app.

2D Dominance: So I don't think 3D is ever going to topple 2D as the best way to visualise spatial data. This may seem a little surprising, we live, work and move about in 3D all the time, why won't 3D will become more common? What this point misses is that we also symbolise all the time too, a road map is far more useful than satellite imagery for navigating with because it strips out everything unnecessary (trees, people, greenhouses) and leaves exactly the information we need: roads and junctions as symbols. Usually the best visualisation is the simplest one possible so if a spatial problem can be visualised in 2D its best to do it that way. Especially if you are rendering the map on a small screen smart phone. We live on a planet that were it reduced to the size of a billiard ball would be smoother than any in the world so it really isn't surprising that most of our spatial data can be effectively reduced to 2D.

*of course you can now pull 3D GEarth into a Google Maps but I'm not really focussing on the technology here.