What happened to Google Maps?
May 28, 2016 7:59 AM   Subscribe

Justin O'Beirne compares the 2010 and 2016 editions of Google Maps and finds a lack of balance — especially after looking at a map printed in the 1960s.

O'Beirne used to run a blog called 41Latitude about maps and usability, and from 2011 to 2015 led Apple's cartography efforts.

A version of this essay was also published on Quartz, and some may find it easier to read there.

Previously.
posted by metaquarry (129 comments total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
 
I don't understand how you can talk about the balance of roads and cities on a google/apple map without talking about zoom levels. Of course the paper and transit maps get balance right, they're used in a different UI context than the digital ones. With one touch, you adjust the balance on the Google map, emphasizing the area you know you want to go to. With one typed or spoken word, you get to zoom on the city you want, revealing the relevant surrounding network. With a quick query, you get the directions with every road you want highlighted. The maps are changed because what people expect to do with maps have changed. In a zoomable world, does it make sense to have more roads and fewer cities? Off the top of my head, it certainly makes it look like Google knows all the options and are considering them when I plan a trip, as opposed to the disconnected cities from 2010 that would leave me wondering about the completeness of the mapping efforts.
posted by persona at 8:11 AM on May 28, 2016 [35 favorites]


I have noticed needing to zoom in further to get street names. Town names I'd not noticed because a circumstance where it would be useful hasn't come up for me - route planning without relying on Google to do it for you? Even then I would have thought junctions would be more important.
posted by Artw at 8:17 AM on May 28, 2016 [12 favorites]


I use Google maps professional all the time (because our in-house GIS system has no search function [!!!] and is seriously slow and buggy), and this is definitely a problem.
posted by suelac at 8:23 AM on May 28, 2016 [5 favorites]


Yes! This really bothers me. I think it's a symptom of a design philosophy focused on getting the user _to_ what they already know they want; seeing roads, turns, etc. might (might?) seem to make sense if you know your starting point and your destination point, but are totally not interested in anything else. How can you know whether you're interested in anything else if you never encounter it as an option? Are users going to come to discount the wider world?

This is similar to the idea that Google's search listings are trying to guess what you're looking for -- they seem to be hoping you're looking for something to buy.

However, in both cases, the end result is not the best possible for the user. Along-the-way cities can be good stops for food or generally knowing the area better (especially if you _live_ nearby). Going to a place and being completely ignorant of the surroundings is problematic for a lot of reasons.

From a simple navigation point of view, having landmarks can really aid navigation. The idea that you can slavishly follow directions from Google's server and get what you really need is naïve.

Similarly, search listings that aim only to serve a "search->purchase" model are going to lead to a very impoverished marketplace. If I have the impulse to purchase a table saw, and search for "table saw" only to see sites that list item names and prices, and I barely know what the different features mean, the obvious way to choose is by price and maybe a semi-ignorant selection based on what features I _think_ I want. It would be much better if I got auxiliary information, like whatever debates are happening in the table saw world, some kind of carpentry magazine site, etc. -- maybe also a special link to a shopping-focused listing.

We need the side trips to be cognitively available!

Also, I'm really quite upset that I can't just print a map of the area and have it be high-resolution. Ugh. Relying on turn-by-turn directions is a real problem. What if I suddenly want to make a side trip, or I see a sign saying "strawberries 3 mi. on left"?
posted by amtho at 8:30 AM on May 28, 2016 [51 favorites]


I think it's also a thing that's really changed between old school desktop application design and modern design - this used to be the sort of thing there would be a slider for, these days no chance.
posted by Artw at 8:31 AM on May 28, 2016 [9 favorites]


On either map, it's not immediately clear how to travel between San Francisco (or any other Bay Area city) and Santa Cruz.
You're supposed to speak the directions into your smart device and follow the instructions until it says you've arrived.
posted by hawthorne at 8:32 AM on May 28, 2016 [9 favorites]


old school desktop application design

I think it's a mistake to think that desktop design doesn't still matter.


"Following the instructions" will get you lost a _lot_.
posted by amtho at 8:34 AM on May 28, 2016 [7 favorites]


As a lover and student of maps in a deep way that borderlines on "I might be a little weird about maps" this FPP get exactly at what I used to love about google maps that now feels barren and "for commuters only".
posted by Annika Cicada at 8:47 AM on May 28, 2016 [36 favorites]


Related article in TechCrunch about Google maps issues with venue locations. Full disclosure I work for the startup named in the article. Lots of cool stuff happening in the mapping space right now.
posted by humanfont at 8:49 AM on May 28, 2016 [2 favorites]


Great post. I didn't expect to agree with the author going in, but came away with a new viewpoint. The map he describes absolutely looks more useful. I think at different zoom levels, keeping the balance he suggested - no cities without roads, no roads without cities, and all roads labeled - will only improve the application's usability. (until you zoom down to the local level, where you are more interested in street names than cities and towns)
posted by rouftop at 8:55 AM on May 28, 2016 [4 favorites]


I enjoy articles like this. It's not just an argument about what google maps should do, it's a primer on a certain aspect of map-making. Educational!
posted by not that girl at 9:01 AM on May 28, 2016 [8 favorites]


Justin O'Beirne is the world's best writer about map usability. His 41 Latitude blog had amazingly detailed analysis of Google and Bing maps design, really great stuff. And then he went to Apple and it all went offline, even now it's really offline and he's pointing to a Wayback Machine link to read his old stuff.

I'm glad he escaped the Apple tar pit.
posted by Nelson at 9:03 AM on May 28, 2016 [10 favorites]


I have noticed needing to zoom in further to get street names.

Yes. Even worse are waterways — if you're lucky, they'll be labeled when you zoom in, but usually you will have to drag along a river at close zoom for a while before it will grudgingly yield a label. Sometimes it never does. Sometimes a label that was there before has disappeared after going to a different zoom level and then back.
posted by indubitable at 9:03 AM on May 28, 2016 [30 favorites]


Also note that while Google maps uses increasingly invisible shades of yellow on light gray, the 1960s map uses high-contrast red and blue on a white background. I bet you can even read it in direct sunlight!
posted by echo target at 9:04 AM on May 28, 2016 [12 favorites]


What if I suddenly want to make a side trip, or I see a sign saying "strawberries 3 mi. on left"?

I guess if you're connected to the internet, just let the app recalculate the route when you're ready to resume? At least that's what I do.

So it makes me wonder: Is one of the problems here that people have become so dependent on turn-by-turn that they're no longer comfortable just winging it when necessary?
posted by Insert Clever Name Here at 9:15 AM on May 28, 2016 [9 favorites]


I too have noticed the design of Google Maps getting prettier and pretter and less and less useful over the years. My favorite is when a road label that is visible while zoomed out suddenly disappears when I zoom in a bit. And this light gray on white nonsense? Come on. They can afford to hire the best cartographers, programmers, and designers in the world, and this is what they come up with? It's obvious from the second you use this stuff that it's a pain in the ass, and I can only assume that they're trying to herd me into using it in only the way that is most beneficial to them as a company. It's obnoxious design.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 9:22 AM on May 28, 2016 [30 favorites]


Is one of the problems here that people have become so dependent on turn-by-turn that they're no longer comfortable just winging it when necessary?

I think the problem, or part of it, is more that companies like Google create a dependency on turn-by-turn directions by failing to offer an alternative. That is, I think the customers are still comfortable winging it, but they now lack the information to do so as effectively as they could in the past.
posted by teponaztli at 9:27 AM on May 28, 2016 [10 favorites]


I was trying to plan a weeklong trip to Yellowstone, and found Google Maps nearly useless. Even zoomed way, way in, there are very few features of any kind shown. I bought a couple of Delorme atlases.

The suggestion that the changes are all to accommodate mobile users don't carry a lot of weight, given my experience that navigation on Android seems to be continuously changed so that I have to keep leaning new ways to do things I used to be able to do easily.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 9:28 AM on May 28, 2016 [5 favorites]


Insert Clever Name Here: "So it makes me wonder: Is one of the problems here that people have become so dependent on turn-by-turn that they're no longer comfortable just winging it when necessary?"

Death by GPS
posted by chavenet at 9:28 AM on May 28, 2016 [4 favorites]


Fewer cities and more roads?

That's just Google reminding us that life is about the journey, not the destination, man.
posted by sourwookie at 9:30 AM on May 28, 2016 [3 favorites]


For reference, I'm 30 and I grew up using paper maps all the time. "Winging it" in my book doesn't mean just driving down random streets and assuming they'll go where I think they will, because they often don't. That's what I would turn to a map for, and that's the kind of information Google seems to be scaling back in favor of just having it tell me what the "best route" is (as determined algorithmically).
posted by teponaztli at 9:30 AM on May 28, 2016 [10 favorites]


In all likelihood, Google has A/B tested the shit out of any changes to what they show on Google maps, so while they might somehow intuitively seem less useful, they're obviously driving some kind of benefit. The question then becomes whether the benefit they derive is 'people get information better' or 'people spend more time on Google maps trying to figure shit out because why fuck isn't Roanoke on this map it's gotta be around here somewhere'.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:34 AM on May 28, 2016 [9 favorites]


> I don't understand how you can talk about the balance of roads and cities on a google/apple map without talking about zoom levels.

When the application knows the route or the results of the search, then it makes sense to focus the most relevant (or seemingly-relevant) items and blur the least-relevant (or seemingly-relevant) items.

O'Bierne's example map at the conclusion is perfectly readable inasmuch as the application does not know the intentions of the user calling up that view. Without a route or search for the application to discern what you want to see, it should be doing a better job of providing an optimal breadth of information. With more input from the user, the map can begin presenting information hierarchically.

A slight digression, but maybe it's illustrative: When I use Waze or Google Maps to plan a driving route on a highway, the turn-by-turn directions will recite all aspects of the name of an interchange. So, for example, if I'm on I-40 westbound (which is unified with I-85 southbound) towards Greensboro, North Carolina, there's this really complicated interchange where I-40 W/I-85 S provides exits to I-40 W/I-85 Bus S, to I-85 S, and to I-840 N. Since I'm heading towards the Triad Airport on the west side of town, I take I-40 W/I-85 Bus S through the south of Greensboro, where it merges with federal routes, becoming I-40 W/I-85 Bus S/US 70 W/US 29 S/US 220 S*. This takes almost a minute for Waze to recite, during which I've driven an entire mile and through the interchange that diverts away most of the state routes. I could blow through the next exit before Waze could tell me I was approaching it, because the irrelevant information had to finish announcing first.

And I don't actually give a rat's ass about those other routes, because they have no bearing on my own. In fact I don't even care about I-85 Bus S, which, at that point, I'd been on for a few miles. When not only timing, but the duration of the announcement, is critical, the turn-by-turn directions should be dropping the irrelevant routes from the announcement. They are audible clutter that makes it harder for me to stay focused on the continuity of my planned route. And the application knows this because it planned that route.

*(And that is not the most complicated road segment. This is.)
posted by ardgedee at 9:37 AM on May 28, 2016 [31 favorites]


I'm 30 and I grew up using paper maps all the time.

Yeah I have at least six maps in my car in case my phone doesn't work for whatever reason. They are a life saver. Annoying that you can't buy them at many gas stations any more.
posted by freakazoid at 9:38 AM on May 28, 2016 [9 favorites]


> Annoying that you can't buy them at many gas stations any more.

Bookstores are still awesome for maps, though. I haven't been in one yet that doesn't have at least a modest display of DeLorme maps of the local area.
posted by ardgedee at 9:41 AM on May 28, 2016 [2 favorites]


I think the author is assuming that all maps have the same use case, and that's not true. Those older maps were used for route planning and getting the lay of the land. Google maps is primarily used for navigation, when you already know your destination. As he suggests, much of the time this is done on mobile devices and readability is very important.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 9:41 AM on May 28, 2016 [2 favorites]


Bookstores are still awesome for maps

That's good to know. The problem is finding a bookstore around here.
posted by freakazoid at 9:44 AM on May 28, 2016 [4 favorites]


To jacquilynne's point, A/B testing doesn't always improve things, badly designed A/B trials can easily making things worse. Also it tends to lead to local optima like the cluttered Amazon product pages. Every single pixel has been optimized for revenue, but the page as a whole is a mess.

My reading of O'Beirne's essay is that Google is basically optimizing for one goal when he would prefer another. Removing city labels is a good thing for reducing map clutter and increasing road visibility. It is a bad thing for orientation if you know an area by place names. It's a tradeoff. More generally, designing a map to be useful as an augmentation to turn-by-turn directions is a very different thing than designing a map to let you find your own routes.

I also disagree with his "roads to nowhere" criticism. In both the Santa Cruz and Pittsburg/Antioch cases, those "roads to nowhere" are very useful independent of going to those places. They are alternate routes to get through some high traffic areas. But I get this is a matter of opinion and I appreciate his expert perspective.

This essay doesn't talk about it but a big technology leap that's driving all these map changes is vector maps and client-side rendering. Google Maps originally had one set of tile images rendered for the whole world and everyone saw the same map. Now Google is delivering detailed lines for roads and the phone / browser is deciding what to draw. It's entirely feasible to have responsive rendering so that, for instance, more city labels are shown in the direction you're traveling. I don't know to what extent Google is doing this now.
posted by Nelson at 9:44 AM on May 28, 2016 [9 favorites]


I think the customers are still comfortable winging it, but they now lack the information to do so as effectively as they could in the past.

Point taken. And it's been a long time since I did any serious x-country road tripping. I guess I'd probably find the detail of the maps on my phone to be inadequate too.

Since we know the data's there, it's too bad we just can't tell Google (or whatever) just to show more (or as much as possible, at a given zoom level) of it when we ask.
posted by Insert Clever Name Here at 9:44 AM on May 28, 2016


holy crap ardgedee, I've had the exact same problem through the exact same interchange! after about 15 seconds I'm thinking (honestly, yelling to an empty car) "OK I GET IT PLEASE UNMUTE THE PODCAST WHICH YOU HELPFULLY DID NOT PAUSE BEFORE INTERRUPTING"

another fun one is Exit 27 for US-74 toward US-19/US-23/Clyde/Waynesville/Maggie Valley/Franklin/Murphy/Atlanta further down past Asheville
posted by indubitable at 9:49 AM on May 28, 2016 [7 favorites]


Label placement is a hard problem to begin with, even when you're making a single static map and can spend as much time (personal time or computer time) on it as you need to, because there are so many conflicting priorities for what could and should be shown, and where.

It gets even harder when you are trying to keep the labels that are shown consistent from each zoom level to the next, and then gets really complicated once you are placing the labels dynamically, on the client side, under time pressure, without much coordination between adjacent map tiles, in a way that has to keep working as the user scales and rotates and tilts the map. This is also the world that Google Maps lives in now, and probably explains why it doesn't look as nice as it did when everything was pre-rendered and they could spend all the time in the world on it.
posted by enf at 9:50 AM on May 28, 2016 [13 favorites]


Removing city labels is a good thing for reducing map clutter and increasing road visibility. It is a bad thing for orientation if you know an area by place names. It's a tradeoff.

Not really. We're talking software, afterall. Software is flexible. A little toggle for "more/fewer place names" would go a long way in making both camps happy.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:51 AM on May 28, 2016 [9 favorites]


So I used Google maps to steer me around traffic on the way up to the cabin yesterday. I know the way, but traffic was a drag. Anyway, I punched in Pollock Pines because that's close enough, and where we'd stop for groceries... and for the key to the cabin, which was at Mom's a few miles south of Pollock .

Anyway! We blew right by Pollock Pines proper and started toward Mom's while the Google maps recalculated, recalculated, and to my horror , decided I was headed to Mom's and generated turn by turn directions to her house, with no input from me. It just did it.

That's not cool.
posted by notyou at 9:55 AM on May 28, 2016 [12 favorites]


That's what I would turn to a map for, and that's the kind of information Google seems to be scaling back in favor of just having it tell me what the "best route" is (as determined algorithmically).

The decision to feature more roads is a good thing for those of us that navigate by looking at maps rather than using google's directions.
posted by jpe at 10:01 AM on May 28, 2016 [1 favorite]


I quit using Google maps a while back because it was slow, buggy, and I couldn't easily find what I was looking for. It would sometimes hang for long periods and there was a stupid amount of zoom in, zoom out, zoom in, zoom out, "no don't zoom there, zoom where I clicked".

I think that was the last Google service I was still using.
posted by bongo_x at 10:07 AM on May 28, 2016 [2 favorites]


The decision to feature more roads is a good thing for those of us that navigate by looking at maps rather than using google's directions.

As the author points out, more roads are useless if:
1. The roads lack labels
2. There are no cities/destinations on the roads. It's like a subway map with no stations.
posted by JackFlash at 10:18 AM on May 28, 2016 [3 favorites]


I'm really quite upset that I can't just print a map of the area and have it be high-resolution. Ugh. Relying on turn-by-turn directions is a real problem. What if I suddenly want to make a side trip, or I see a sign saying "strawberries 3 mi. on left"?

SO MUCH THIS! I'm good with maps but I also like being able to see something outside of my destination. I like being able to see four or five roads ahead in either direction, this way I know the names of roads that signify I've gone too far and missed my destination. Using Google Maps is often frustrating in this very specific way.
posted by Fizz at 10:19 AM on May 28, 2016 [17 favorites]


Gooogle maps that now feels barren and "for commuters only".

with Maps it's a ultimately a user interface problem, but when everyone is an ivy league educated engineer who probably grew up in suburbia, "self driving car" means something very different than if you aren't. commuting to mountain view or Palo alto is actually an easy edge case for driving a car in general.

but with Maps, when you start with a product which everyone thought was great and end up with one where increasing numbers of people say it sucks, it's not really a design issue. Google isn't making Maps suck because of bad ideas about map design...
posted by ennui.bz at 10:29 AM on May 28, 2016


also, Google likes to pretend that people without data or without reliable data don't exist. so Maps on mobile for those people is basically a nonstarter. offline Maps is obtuse and broken. once you try "Here" maps, where you can actually just download the US roadmap, state by state, there's just no reason to bother with Google Maps.

as long as BMW hold onto 'Here' I guess everything will continue to work, unless they decide to get into targeted advertising. The Apple car is going to be such a mindfuck: a car designed by a company that sees cars as an emerging (social) media platform...
posted by ennui.bz at 10:37 AM on May 28, 2016 [2 favorites]


Man I thought it was just me. I recently got back from a road trip that I'd done a couple years before and I couldn't figure out why it was so much harder to navigate this time. It felt like route options were more available last time - on this trip, it kept shunting me back onto the exact highways I was trying to avoid and it was way harder to look at the map and figure out the way I wanted to go, which was slower, quieter and more scenic.
posted by mygothlaundry at 10:38 AM on May 28, 2016 [4 favorites]


I'm a recreational (and sometimes racing) cyclist who often goes for a 50-100km spin up the mountains at weekends and I've completely stopped using Google Maps to plan my routes - because the mountain roads are generally small, they don't show up at all unless I'm zoomed in too far to see my overall route. I've started using OpenStreetMap - it's also a lot more responsive on a desktop, and there are mapping apps that can download a whole OpenStreetMap country in advance if you're going somewhere with no data/expensive roaming.

Google seem to be falling prey to arrogance lately, dropping features that people had come to rely on and deciding that if the user's intuition differs from Google's intuition, then the user is wrong. It's hardly the only one to be misapplying mobile design on the desktop though (I'm looking at you Ubuntu). It seems to be very common now for new releases to drop a bunch of features without warning, and blame the users for being grumpy old men if they complain.
posted by kersplunk at 10:40 AM on May 28, 2016 [25 favorites]


You have to remember that a lot of people (like me) have no sense of direction. Well, not exactly like me, because I'm dyspraxic and I have literally no sense of direction relative to my body, but...anyway...

The reason that Google get away with making Maps worse for those of you who can use maps is that a lot of people have always been terrible at navigating. Probably most people. People who used to get lost because they'd misunderstood something may now be getting lost because of Google, but how are we to know? It takes a fairly high degree of competence to identify whether a map is better or worse. The rest of us just turn on turn by turn, I guess. We couldn't do any better anyway.
posted by howfar at 10:55 AM on May 28, 2016 [4 favorites]


I use Maps daily for work and personal, I don't get "lost _alot_". Anecdotal yes, but you're having some other kind of disconnect not related to Maps.
posted by Brocktoon at 11:01 AM on May 28, 2016


I have in the past worked on a competing, now defunct, mapping product. Unfortunately I don't have enough time for a full critique of the piece. Making maps is incredibly hard. Making dynamic maps is even more difficult.

We found in our testing that there is a major gap between the perception of utility and the actual utility of maps, which is a major missing factor in the comparison. User studies consistently showed that more information was perceived by users as more useful, without much regard for practicality.

When asked to perform tasks with maps, however, a different picture emerges. There is definitely the possibility of having too little information, making tasks difficult or impossible. Having more information also made tasks considerably more difficult, despite the users’ expectations approaching the tasks. The conclusion of the article that "less is just less" is not borne out by data.

There is a happy medium somewhere in the middle where the utility of the map peaks, but the perception of the utility of the map does not. So it is difficult to take something like the article on face value without considering the no doubt numerous and extensive user studies that Google would have put behind these decisions.

It has to be remembered that these are not paper maps. They are not designed to be used like paper maps. Despite existing in the same space it is very difficult to draw comparisons between them.
posted by Prahan at 11:04 AM on May 28, 2016 [25 favorites]


Google Maps is one of those projects that started fantastic but has made some terrible decisions since.

One of them is translating names. In here, I never heard of "Clevelãndia", "Madri", "Oxônia", "Lípsia" or "Aten", and worse off, is that there's no option to show only english/local names. Other is the dreadful 3D view on satellite view - I often use it to get visual cues (train tracks, fields, if that area has sidewalks or not), but when they forced the 3D thing, the result was a blurry mess that was not only slower, but also unusable. Had to disable some option on chrome to get regular aerial photos again. Then, the labeling has in fact, turned to shit - on the same zoom, sometimes it feature the name of a sidestreet about 50m long, but won't of a 3 or 4km main road.

I'm probably buying a shitty new phone this week. Odds are, Google Maps will not be the first map app I'll be using.
posted by lmfsilva at 11:06 AM on May 28, 2016 [1 favorite]


Google seem to be falling prey to arrogance lately, dropping features that people had come to rely on and deciding that if the user's intuition differs from Google's intuition, then the user is wrong.

There is no successful, long-lived technology product that won't succumb eventually to a later manager coming in to "improve" things by overthinking them to death and forcing aberrant changes. If it ain't broke, don't fix it!
posted by JHarris at 11:11 AM on May 28, 2016 [7 favorites]


What if I suddenly want to make a side trip, or I see a sign saying "strawberries 3 mi. on left"?


Well obvs you type STRAWBERRIES into google
posted by ricochet biscuit at 11:17 AM on May 28, 2016 [3 favorites]


Well obvs you type STRAWBERRIES into google

My younger relatives would do this. And then spend 20 minutes trying to find what they were looking for on their phones. I'm not at all sure whether they would eventually try and follow the sign, but I would bet they'd give up and go on if it didn't show up on Google.
posted by bongo_x at 11:28 AM on May 28, 2016 [5 favorites]


Thanks Prahan for some product perspective here. I used to be in the "this thing has gotten terrible because the people behind it are making bad decisions" camp about so many things … until I started working on tech products. Building an app is, inherently, a process of compromise, of tradeoffs. That's true for the niche business app serving a few thousand people and especially true for something at the scale of Google Maps — 150 million users in 2011, I can only imagine where they are today.

The features they dropped that "people had come to rely on"? There's a good chance the people who relied on those features were a tiny percentage of their total user base.

Caveat: absolutely you should also calibrate for where a company's money is coming from. Even if, say, the Google Maps team's intent is purely to make the best mapping product, they will be shaped by the power of lucre. And if of course, as is probably the case, they are also trying to make money off the enterprise that will shape the product decisions.

Now when I get frustrated with an app I ask, "what might have led them to this decision?" Often the answer is, partly, that the thing I'm trying to do isn't the use case that they're focused on. And that's annoying! For sure. But they can not solve for every use case.

Another way to put this: if your analysis is that the hundreds of people who spend 40 hours a week working on something are just ~bad at their jobs~, you're probably wrong. You have to ask, "What is the job that they're actually doing?"
posted by wemayfreeze at 11:32 AM on May 28, 2016 [12 favorites]


Not all google map upgrades are improvements. It is a great product. Everybody should read the Death by GPS link chavenet posted. I have been pointed at self-destruction by mapping queries on at least three separate occasions. Last time was in Crestone CO just a couple years ago.
posted by bukvich at 11:39 AM on May 28, 2016


What's the best paper map one can get for traveling that also has good local maps?
posted by gucci mane at 11:56 AM on May 28, 2016 [1 favorite]


When we took our last Great American Road Trip, we used paper maps because Google insisted on routes that didn't make sense, like trying to route us through New Orleans which was 150 miles out of the way, but was on a highway. I live in an area which is quickly becoming a bedroom community for the dfw metroplex. They put a tollways in, about 10 miles south of us. If I'm trying to go 3 miles west, the Google default is to take me all the way to the tollways, he on the tollways for two miles, then all they way back north to where I was going. If I take the local farm to market road, the trip would take 5 minutes. If I take the Google route, it's 30 minutes. It's just an absurd algorithm than I cannot, for the life of me, figure out.
posted by SecretAgentSockpuppet at 11:57 AM on May 28, 2016 [4 favorites]


We found in our testing that there is a major gap between the perception of utility and the actual utility of maps ....

have you considered that using the same pseudo science that marketing uses to design a user interface is actually bad? just because you have statistics doesn't mean that those numbers are meaningful...
posted by ennui.bz at 12:17 PM on May 28, 2016 [3 favorites]


yeah, for 'commuters'...to be more clear: specifically for people in cars driving that need directions. which is one market segment/user base.

the casual digital community is finding now what cartography types have known for a long time: there ain't no such thing as an all-in-one map.
posted by j_curiouser at 12:19 PM on May 28, 2016 [2 favorites]


It has to be remembered that these are not paper maps. They are not designed to be used like paper maps.

The thing is, on a 24-inch desktop screen I want to use it exactly like a paper map. Google is defaulting to mobile use. It would be nice if they allowed the option of desktop vs mobile views just like other web sites. It seems that they have made a business decision to mainly support mobile. Perhaps some other vendor can fill the void for desktop maps.
posted by JackFlash at 12:38 PM on May 28, 2016 [13 favorites]


Ugh. Relying on turn-by-turn directions is a real problem. What if I suddenly want to make a side trip, or I see a sign saying "strawberries 3 mi. on left"?

I don't get it. You just pause the directions, find your strawberries/make your side trip, and resume once you're done your detour? Apple Maps makes it easy to do all those things by voice as you drive actually.
posted by mazola at 12:42 PM on May 28, 2016 [1 favorite]


Adding to that, I find it actually makes it easier to make side trips because it automatically recalcs a path back to your original destination. Less time getting lost, more time doing what you want to do.
posted by mazola at 12:43 PM on May 28, 2016 [3 favorites]


My big pet peeve is having to zoom and pan to get street names to appear on the map. Instead of glancing at the app and putting your phone away, you have to poke at the map for 30 seconds to extract any information. Not always safe as a pedestrian, and obviously worse as a driver.
posted by smelendez at 12:49 PM on May 28, 2016 [4 favorites]


if your analysis is that the hundreds of people who spend 40 hours a week working on something are just ~bad at their jobs~, you're probably wrong. You have to ask, "What is the job that they're actually doing?"

But it's easy to believe that what they're actually doing is playing out the misinformed psychodynamics of their corporation, in order to not get fired, because that's actually their job. I have to estimate the goals of the corporation before I judge the efficacy of the programmers, and "this product is counterproductive" is pretty good evidence that the corporation is not playing on my team.

... I feel I should write that out in Bayes' notation.
posted by clew at 12:50 PM on May 28, 2016 [11 favorites]


Yeah, mobile is largely to “blame” here. I think the root cause is that Google Maps has switched away from a model where there are discrete levels of zoom and toward a model where you can zoom to an arbitrary scale. So whereas before they could pre-generate raster images of maps where the labels have been curated by humans, now they have to figure out which labels to include on-the-fly, defaulting to a sparse, “safe” level of labeling.

This harmonizes desktop with the pinch-zoom experience on mobile, and I doubt it would've happened had mobile not been an influence. But it's likely that this approach has other benefits. I would assume, or at least hope, that it results in fewer raster images transferred over the wire, which has benefits both for Google and the user. I doubt they could show businesses on the map if they had to re-generate those images whenever a place went out of business or changed its name.

So this isn't a regression on Google's part as much as it is a knowing trade-off. There are certainly times that I would prefer the denser map, so it would be nice to have the ability to opt into it for some things, but I'll still be using Google for all my mapping for the foreseeable future, because their competitors are lagging far behind.
posted by savetheclocktower at 1:07 PM on May 28, 2016 [4 favorites]


to reiterate, i get the sense in this thread that the only problem most people are having is 'it needs to help me drive around in my car - the way i like to.'

i really suggest they change the name to 'google driving around'.
posted by j_curiouser at 1:19 PM on May 28, 2016 [3 favorites]


I guess if you're connected to the internet, just let the app recalculate the route when you're ready to resume? At least that's what I do.

Think about how much data access cell phone service costs. Sure, most of the people you know, and I know, pay it and it's basically fine (although that money could go to something else, potentially).

Think about how many people actually have the kind of job you have to have to afford this, and how many don't.

"Just let the app recalculate" could end up sounding a lot like "Why don't they just eat cake?"
posted by amtho at 1:27 PM on May 28, 2016


"Just let the app recalculate" could end up sounding a lot like "Why don't they just eat cake?"


Route recalculation doesn't use data. I don't think Google is screwing over the sans-culottes on this one.
posted by howfar at 1:47 PM on May 28, 2016


Vector maps have a lot of advantages over raster maps, both for desktop and for print. enf is right that the vector approach shifts more work to the client so some very computationally intensive things (like label placement annealing) are no longer practical. But it also allows for a lot of better presentation and customization.

A few folks have suggested Google should just add options like "more/fewer place names". Options are the opposite of good design, they foist the effort of making a good design on the user. Instead the map should be made with the right design, or if there genuinely is a choice on what to do then make the choice automatically in response to the context. Don't make the user decide.
posted by Nelson at 1:51 PM on May 28, 2016 [2 favorites]


have you considered that using the same pseudo science that marketing uses to design a user interface is actually bad?

I'm sorry, how do you get "pseudo-science" from "testing"? Your dismissiveness here toward someone with actual experience in the field is offensive and rude.
posted by wemayfreeze at 1:59 PM on May 28, 2016 [7 favorites]


Can anyone explain the EXIT 126 REGIONAL ROAD 17 nonsense? Why not EXIT MAITLAND SOUTH?
posted by mikek at 2:04 PM on May 28, 2016


folks have suggested Google should just add options like "more/fewer place names". Options are the opposite of good design, they foist the effort of making a good design on the user. Instead the map should be made with the right design, or if there genuinely is a choice on what to do then make the choice automatically in response to the context. Don't make the user decide.

As a designer I generally agree. Adding options can seem like a good solution when it's actually a shortcut that leads to overly complicated and under done products. However I do think that there one size fits all model is showing its faults more and more. As we spend more time with digital tools we more and more want them to work with us and not force us to work with them. I believe in the future we'll see more customizability in our apps. You can see this trend clearly in iOS: in the early days it was "do it our way", now there are 3rd party keyboards, share extensions, etc.
posted by wemayfreeze at 2:10 PM on May 28, 2016 [3 favorites]


That's a case where the map app is going by the official name on record (the map service records, not the government records). They're going to err on the side of unambiguous, but that contributes to the occasional disconnects between what you see and what the device claims you are seeing.
posted by ardgedee at 2:10 PM on May 28, 2016


For whatever it's worth, when navigating Waze has it all over Google Maps (and Apple's Maps app) for rerouting on the fly. It's gotten to the point where when I have to drive through, say, West Virginia and I'm feeling peckish I'll turn off any exit that seems vaguely promising because I'm reasonably confident that Waze will get me back later with little more than a cybernetic nudge indicating that, yes, I really want to continue on to my original destination now.

Google acquired Waze a couple years ago and I'd assume that at some point they'd integrate the two, but Waze has been progressively developed with (mostly) productive features (and annoyances like in-app advertisements, although blessedly only when it detects that you're fully stopped at a point on the road where it's appropriate to be stopped, such as a traffic light), so they seem committed to keeping them separate things.
posted by ardgedee at 2:15 PM on May 28, 2016 [1 favorite]


Lmfsilva makes a good point; it's not just that the labeling is inadequate, it's also seemingly random. Often minor roads are unlabeled while major ones are not, or if I'm driving through a dense area with lots of side streets at a low speed (such that the map is fully zoomed in) maybe 1/5th of them will be labeled, and it's anybody's guess as to which ones. If I try to zoom in or out to get a better view, some labels will disappear while others will reappear, again with no obvious rhyme or reason to it. It makes it impossible to use the app as a map. Waze is just as bad at this. They're both fine autonavigators, but as actual maps they are ludicrously bad. So they're very good at telling you where to go on a turn-by-turn basis, and the ability to search for nearby locations of interest is extremely helpful, but if you want to actually see what roads are where in an area and try to get a sense of the lay of the land, they quickly become frustrating and hateful. It's a clear case of an app that presents itself as a general-purpose tool but which is heavily optimized for a narrow set of use cases, to the detriment of all others.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 2:22 PM on May 28, 2016 [12 favorites]


A few folks have suggested Google should just add options like "more/fewer place names". Options are the opposite of good design, they foist the effort of making a good design on the user.

As a user, I am going to stop you right here and say goddamn it, I wish I had more options! So many things become less useful with people take options out of them!

Maybe me and those who agree with me are "a tiny fraction of users," and btw good job diminishing our experience. But we are power users, we are among those who get the most use out of your product, we are the ones who have come to rely on your product. We are your biggest boosters, and the ones most likely to complain bitterly and loudly when you mess us up.

You can provide sensible defaults while also allowing, not "making," those of us who need slightly more to get that stuff for ourselves. The alternative is not allowing, which is stupid, especially when it's done in the name of making it easier to use.
posted by JHarris at 2:51 PM on May 28, 2016 [19 favorites]


I am a nature fan and I love/hate using google maps to look at nature. It labels parks when already know they are there and zoom in, but i can't get it to only show me parks. And it's hard to distinguish between parks and golf courses which are everywhere.

there are cool different views and overlays you can use when you create a custom google map. But I can never figure out how to get there and it's a ton of work.

Also, my town is actually one of six towns smashed around a city. When you search for the town name, it shows the boarders. But when you don't, it doesn't. I have no idea where the towns borders actually are.

And I hate how if I want to get some pizza and search for pizza, it drops 10 or so dots on the map. And when I zoom in and out, they all shuffle around like improv actors. Please show me ALL THE PIZZA PLACES, I really don't want to have to zoom in on every single block just to check if there is a pizza place there.
posted by rebent at 2:51 PM on May 28, 2016 [6 favorites]


And it's hard to distinguish between parks and golf courses which are everywhere.

Along similar lines, I often find Google Maps terrible about showing things which are clearly not passable -- gated-off service roads, levees etc -- as trails; it makes it basically impossible as a resource for planning walking/running routes. OpenStreetMap is often a more realistic view of ground-level accessibility; Google's maps often look like they simply did image recognition on the satellite images for "looks like a trail".
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 3:12 PM on May 28, 2016 [2 favorites]


What's the best paper map one can get for traveling that also has good local maps?

AAA Triptik.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:35 PM on May 28, 2016 [7 favorites]


Wow... that Death by GPS article didn't even get into what happens when some mapping service decides a 4-lane 50mph road with no shoulder is a good bike route. (Of course, paper maps can suffer from the same problem.)
posted by sibilatorix at 3:35 PM on May 28, 2016 [2 favorites]


Route recalculation doesn't use data. I don't think Google is screwing over the sans-culottes on this one.

As a Canadian who visits the USA a lot, and data roaming being unreasonably expensive, this has not been my experience. Hit a detour and it says its "recalculating", sure, and it keeps on saying it until I find some wifi or turn on data roaming (which would probably end up costing like twenty bucks just to update the damn map). I'm a paper map aficionado though, and only used the navigation experimentally/supplementally, so no big deal.
posted by rodlymight at 3:36 PM on May 28, 2016


So do I have this right... do people use their smartphones + GoogleMaps as navigation nowadays, while driving? Have they stopped using dedicated navigation systems like Garmin and TomTom make?

(Yes, I live under a rock. I do not have a smartphone and I do not use GoogleAnything if I can help it. It's cosy under here.)
posted by Too-Ticky at 3:50 PM on May 28, 2016


Yes. I had a Garmin GPS for a while, but once I got a decent smartphone, I switched to Google Maps and never looked back.
posted by briank at 4:03 PM on May 28, 2016 [1 favorite]


Yeah Too-Ticky, a lot of people have. I have. That and MetaFilter are the main reasons why I have had a big-ass phone for the last few years. I don't know how it is nowadays, but at the time I made the switch Google Maps was lightyears ahead of TomTom and Garmin in terms of functionality and UI, and for all its faults (many of which are actually quite recent developments!) it's improved and updated a lot over the years. I get in the car, clamp my phone into the holder, tell it where I want to go, and I'm off.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 4:06 PM on May 28, 2016 [1 favorite]


...Wow. I completely missed that. Thanks!
posted by Too-Ticky at 4:08 PM on May 28, 2016


I too have noticed the design of Google Maps getting prettier and pretter and less and less useful over the years.

From your lips to Google's ears.

I can't read paper maps any more, due eyes, and I used to be pretty handy at it - you could dump me in a wilderness with an OS map and a compass, and I could do the business.

But I also can't easily read street names and the like these days, and I can't drive, so I rely on public transport and Shank's Pony and Google Maps to get around. And Google Maps has degenerated to a state where it regularly leaves me close to tears of frustration and anger. The most recent time was last week, where I HAD to know where I was along the directions it had generated for me - but I was a blue dot, and the walking directions were a line of blue dots, and you couldn't have made a less useful choice of graphics.

And I need text to zoom along with the street layout, and I need a high contrast colour scheme, and I need a really distinctive way of seeing my actual track versus the directions, and all these would be useful options to a lot of people but GM will not do them.

If you're getting to a business meeting, arriving late, in tears and ready to commit acts of actual physical violence on anyone who looks like they know how to spell vector, is not a good look. My zen only goes so far.

I would like to spend a day out on the hoof with a GM UI designer. Because I cannot live without mobile mapping, and I cannot live with it.
posted by Devonian at 4:09 PM on May 28, 2016 [5 favorites]


Plus, even if the dedicated GPS navigator thingies have kept pace or even caught up over time (which I doubt) they're a whole other expensive thing that I don't need because my phone is already in my pocket and it's plenty good enough. My phone is also my music player and my, um, phone, both of which are handy to have clamped to my car's dashboard when I'm driving. Might not be such a big deal if I had a new car with smart bluetooth everything, but my ride is from 2003 and my phone does a pretty good job of replicating most of that functionality all by itself.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 4:10 PM on May 28, 2016 [2 favorites]


Hit a detour and it says its "recalculating", sure, and it keeps on saying it until I find some wifi or turn on data roaming

I can see how you could have that experience, but I'm pretty sure that it's a result of it not having the map data, not recalculation itself. I tried it earlier with my phone and downloaded maps, in a few different ways, and it doesn't seem to need to go online. And, of course, if the problem is not having the maps in the first place, it doesn't matter how well designed they might be.
posted by howfar at 4:33 PM on May 28, 2016


Huh, apparently Justin was surprised to find his essay on Quartz
.@qz I didn't write that title—why is my name signed to it as if I did? And posting my essay word-for-word? 🙅
(BTW, he has a book forthcoming: Maps for the Masses: Designing Cartography for a Global Audience.
posted by Nelson at 4:33 PM on May 28, 2016 [6 favorites]


As a Canadian who visits the USA a lot, and data roaming being unreasonably expensive, this has not been my experience.

Did you tell the phone to download the region you're visiting before you went off line? (it cannot do much about it when you've already lost connectivity, obviously).

The most recent time was last week, where I HAD to know where I was along the directions it had generated for me - but I was a blue dot

If on mobile, put your finger on the blue dot and hold it there, and it'll tell you the street address.
posted by effbot at 4:37 PM on May 28, 2016


Yeah, even though the Garmin was a game changer for me (far better than scraps of paper with directions to places from my home), it went from being used essentially whenever I was going somewhere that wasn't work to dormant when I got a smartphone that had Google Maps.

There were remote places I went where I couldn't get a 3G signal, but the Garmin frequently didn't show any roads in such places either.


Turn-by-turn directions on mobile are important to me, because I cannot for the life of me remember more than one future action at any given time, and I have to drive places repeatedly and regularly to have any chance of remembering them even most of the time.

I've mostly given up on using Google Maps to try to find a thing or a type of thing; if I don't have an address or a place name it is rarely useful.
posted by mountmccabe at 4:39 PM on May 28, 2016 [3 favorites]


Google maps almost got me mugged in Johannesburg. It turns out that if you search for a place in Johannesburg that Google doesn't know about, it generates directions to "Johannesburg", which is a point in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in central Johannesburg. Why the fsck can't it just say: I don't know where "Joe's Pizza" is?
posted by monotreme at 4:44 PM on May 28, 2016 [2 favorites]


Why the fsck can't it just say: I don't know where "Joe's Pizza" is?

Ego, insecurity
posted by indubitable at 4:48 PM on May 28, 2016 [4 favorites]


O'Beirne has just posted a followup: Fire Roads.
posted by metaquarry at 4:55 PM on May 28, 2016 [4 favorites]


> I can see how you could have that experience, but I'm pretty sure that it's a result of it not having the map data, not recalculation itself.

In certain parts of the world (Most of the denser urban centers in North America, Europe, and various other countries), Google Maps and its competitors factors current or projected traffic data when calculating routes. It's more complex than the shortest path between two points and absolutely needs remote data and/or number crunching.

You can emulate this in Google Maps in a desktop web browser, by entering an origin and destination point, clicking "Leave Now" and entering the day and time you will be or would have been traveling. (I happen to be using this function right now for some planning of my own, it's a pretty neat feature that's been around for a while in different manifestations.)
posted by ardgedee at 4:58 PM on May 28, 2016


I'd just like to chime in that the concentration on mobile has ruined the desktop Google Maps UX. Which I find strange. Mobiles have their GM apps: optimise for touch there!

So why is the desktop, browser version now so hard to control with a mouse? This is since their change to the 'new' version: inadvertant zooming, overcompensating drag movement ... it's like they used the code they used for mobile touch and just translated it to mouse! It's horrible.

As is the UI. I used to be able to switch to satelite mode, have a raft of layers I could show/hide (borders, roads, rivers, labels); now I have to hunt around and some are either gone or I haven't been able to find them, which is just as bad.

I hope the GM guys are reading this thread...

And to the 'designer' who says choice is bad design? You're one of those superior, 'design is all' guys, aren't you? Giving the user choice for a complex thing is GOOD DESIGN. Because the only time reducing choice is good is if you have a simple object and you are a master in you craft.

And chances are you're not. So your design is going to be flawed. And the more complex something is, the more different ways it's going to be used, the more likely your design mistakes are going to be be. The only way you can mitigate that is to give the user options to change what is before them to do what they exactly want ... which is likely something the designer had no idea of or had a different idea of.

And maps, as evidenced in this thread, are used for many purposes. So a good designer designs something which the user can tune so that it does become useful for his usecase.; the more complex, the more options. The UI/UX designer then makes it so those knobs and dials are intuitive to use.
posted by MacD at 5:00 PM on May 28, 2016 [7 favorites]


Options are the opposite of good design, they foist the effort of making a good design on the user. Instead the map should be made with the right design, or if there genuinely is a choice on what to do then make the choice automatically in response to the context.

Man it must be great to work in map design where the whole space is so unconstrained that you can just adjust one thing without having to trade off against dozens of other things. Aircraft design is nothing like that, or I would have designed the One Perfect Aircraft and sat back stacking my billions ("carries 300 passengers, vertical takeoff and landing, runs on whispers of encouragement from small children and can dogfight MiGs with the best of 'em").
posted by indubitable at 5:13 PM on May 28, 2016 [2 favorites]


As is the UI. I used to be able to switch to satelite mode, have a raft of layers I could show/hide (borders, roads, rivers, labels); now I have to hunt around and some are either gone or I haven't been able to find them, which is just as bad.

A raft of layers? Are you sure you're not confusing maps with earth?
posted by effbot at 5:16 PM on May 28, 2016


Google Maps and its competitors factors current or projected traffic data when calculating routes. It's more complex than the shortest path between two points and absolutely needs remote data and/or number crunching.

But when it's offline, it doesn't refuse to recalculate, it just tells you that traffic data aren't available. That's a screenshot of my phone doing just that.
posted by howfar at 5:20 PM on May 28, 2016


A raft of layers? Are you sure you're not confusing maps with earth?

Those layers definitely exist in Maps, and are definitely less easy to access now.
posted by howfar at 5:23 PM on May 28, 2016 [4 favorites]


I've noticed that Waze just got some Google money sprinkled on it and their iPhone interface got a lot "prettier" and so much less useful.


Just like Google Maps, prettier, s-lo-w-e-r and less useful.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 5:34 PM on May 28, 2016 [1 favorite]


Waze does have a few good features. I like being able to add multiple stops along my route (though what I really want is to input a series of stops and have it give me the best travelling-salesman path to hit all of them as efficiently as possible… it wouldn't even have to be totally optimal, close would be good enough). I like being able to know when I need to leave if I want to arrive somewhere by a certain time, taking into account prevailing traffic conditions. I love knowing when there's a speed trap coming up, based on other users having flagged it for me. I love having a GPS-based speedometer because my car's reads about 4mph faster than reality, though I hate that it turns red if I go EVEN ONE MILE PER HOUR over what Waze thinks the speed limit is. And on the iPhone at least, the text in Google Maps is tiny and unreadable, forcing me to look away from the road for an unacceptable length of time before I can see what it wants me to do, whereas Waze is properly cartoonish and easy to read.

BUT I CAN'T STAND THE FUCKING ADVERTISEMENTS POPPING UP ON TOP OF MY NAV SCREEN, WHAT THE FUCK, WHO THOUGHT THAT WAS REMOTELY ACCEPTABLE?
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 5:47 PM on May 28, 2016 [2 favorites]


Plus, even if the dedicated GPS navigator thingies have kept pace or even caught up over time (which I doubt) they're a whole other expensive thing that I don't need because my phone is already in my pocket and it's plenty good enough.

Ha! I have pretty much the same justification in the other direction. I have a dumb phone that plays music, makes calls, occasionally text and take a picture or video. It's small, stupid cheap and I don't want anything else. I did wish for maps occasionally though, but that hardly seemed worth the extra a smart phone and data plan would cost me, so I bought a GPS for $50.

The address finding, trip planning and routing, and all that works great, but I know the business listings are not as up to date. But it's 90% of the functionality for 5% of the price.
posted by bongo_x at 6:05 PM on May 28, 2016 [2 favorites]


I think the author is assuming that all maps have the same use case, and that's not true. Those older maps were used for route planning and getting the lay of the land. Google maps is primarily used for navigation, when you already know your destination.

Unless I'm very much mistaken, that 1960s map is a AAA Triptik--which would be used primarily for navigation. I've used a Triptik both times I moved cross country and they have maps of each day's major areas plus pages of directions of each day's major points to navigate. They're a little old school but when you're up in the wilds of Wyoming and there's no cell service for miles, it's damn handy to have a Triptik tell you where you need to turn next.

I definitely agree with the author that they maintain a good balance between enough detail to inform but not so much detail to overwhelm. They also do a good job creating each day's map, even when you're driving hundreds of miles and going through several major cities. I am willing to bet that AAA has put some money into maintaining Triptik over the years but I'm also willing to bet that it's far less than Google has spent on Google Maps. And yet.
posted by librarylis at 6:14 PM on May 28, 2016 [3 favorites]


Triptik uses humans to design routes. And, in my experience* they work on some pretty generalized heuristics (prefer interstates to non-interstate highways, prefer limited-access divided highways to surface roads, prefer routing around rather than through cities, etc.) combined with personal experiences driving in whatever parts of they country coinciding with the route they're planning.

*(Talking with the person while they assembled my Triptik in front of me, in 2011 while planning a route through Appalachia because Google Maps' sole recommendation was an algorithmically optimized route that was unworkable in real life.)
posted by ardgedee at 6:23 PM on May 28, 2016 [1 favorite]


So do I have this right... do people use their smartphones + GoogleMaps as navigation nowadays, while driving? Have they stopped using dedicated navigation systems like Garmin and TomTom make?

For me, it depends.

My Garmin has a much better car-friendly interface than Google (or Waze or various OpenStreetMap apps).
Garmin has clearly spent time with actual users in actual cars when designing the interface.*
The colors are readable in all light conditions, the buttons have icons you can decipher, and they are spaced properly for use when the device is mounted.

On the other hand, the destination input function is still stuck in 2005.
You still need to work backwards (City -> Street -> Number), search outside pre-canned categories is horrible, and forget about using it to quickly add a detour.
Garmin does have an app so you can do it on your phone, but it's still less convenient than the deep Android search to map integration.

The Garmin is awkward to take to the car, plug in, etc but the screen is much larger and visible.

So, my use case tends to be, mulit-day or long trips, the Garmin gets the nod.
For short, take-me-to-this-new-restaurant, around town jaunts, google maps gets the nod.

*Designers talk about the "10 foot" interface for TVS, for cars it's the "4 foot" interface I guess.
posted by madajb at 6:29 PM on May 28, 2016 [1 favorite]


Google Maps jumped the shark long ago. Maybe I could send them a suggestion for improvement!
posted by rmmcclay at 6:48 PM on May 28, 2016


The Garmin is awkward to take to the car, plug in, etc but the screen is much larger and visible.

I have a Magellan, for no particular reason except it was on sale and my eyes were glazing over comparing models, but it's pretty easy. The unit just pops on the stand which has the cable in it. But I usually don't even take it out, or just pop it off and put it under the seat. I don't think anyone is going to break into my car for a $50 GPS. I can imagine the hilarity of someone trying to sell it!
posted by bongo_x at 8:25 PM on May 28, 2016


I get the complaints about Google Maps on desktop. It has gotten much better for directions and navigation over the years, especially with regard to transit, traffic, and POI discovery, but as an interface for browsing a map and getting the lay of the land it has gotten somewhat worse.

What I don't get are complaints about the smartphone apps. IMO, it has only improved. The latest Android versions are pretty damn slick. My only complaint is that it's routing engine is not quite as good as Waze in terms of dealing with traffic. In almost every other way it is far better than Waze, though. Voice commands are better, lane guidance is better, alternative routing is easier, and it doesn't shit the bed as badly with no/spotty data.
posted by wierdo at 9:21 PM on May 28, 2016


The features they dropped that "people had come to rely on"? There's a good chance the people who relied on those features were a tiny percentage of their total user base... they can not solve for every use case.

Every use case is certainly too much to ask. Not abandoning use cases they used to support (or at least being reluctant and deeply cautious about it) isn't.

Another way to put this: if your analysis is that the hundreds of people who spend 40 hours a week working on something are just ~bad at their jobs~, you're probably wrong.

As far as I can tell from working in the industry, there are in fact a significant number of people out there that are average or even mediocre at their jobs. And fitting software to needs of a broad population is hard enough that even if you're decent at it, you are probably going to make significant mistakes. That goes double for anyone who thinks this is a problem they can solve primarily by relying on data.

But perhaps more importantly, it doesn't need to be hundreds of people bad at their jobs, it really just needs to be a few in the right positions calling shots. And it can happen because they're following the wrong story that's trendy in the industry, it can happen because somebody otherwise smart, momentarily had a dumb idea they compounded by mistaking it for brilliance, it can happen because you have a careerist actor that's more talented at marketing themselves to investors/management than they are at actually getting the job done so they just sortof cargo cult their best Steve Jobs impression, it can happen because even brilliant ideas are dangerous when they're the only ones you have.
posted by wildblueyonder at 9:22 PM on May 28, 2016 [7 favorites]


I'm about to finally buy a stand-alone GPS for use in Korea. Google and the ROK govt are having a feud over mapping data, making Google maps all but useless here. Sometimes I can have a co-worker type the addresses in question into the Naver app or something else local. Anything remotely unplanned is an adventure.
posted by the christopher hundreds at 9:25 PM on May 28, 2016


I bought a GPS for $50.

I had no idea they were so inexpensive. I'm considering getting a tiny phone with no touchscreen (my current phone keeps falling out of my pocket); this would be a good addition.
posted by amtho at 10:12 PM on May 28, 2016


The unit just pops on the stand which has the cable in it. But I usually don't even take it out, or just pop it off and put it under the seat. I don't think anyone is going to break into my car for a $50 GPS. I can imagine the hilarity of someone trying to sell it!

In my town, leaving anything vaguely electronic in your car is asking for a busted window, valuable or not.
I do have one of those fancy weighted stands with a sticky base, much easier than a window suction mount.
posted by madajb at 10:32 PM on May 28, 2016


I had no idea they were so inexpensive.

Some of them can be pricey, but it's one of those things that's on sale all the time, and there's always new ones coming out.
posted by bongo_x at 10:37 PM on May 28, 2016


I have a very old TomTom 1, with very old map data. (Tom periodically sends me an email about updating the data, but the price is always absurd, so I haven't.) I used my Android phone for a couple of weeks worth of navigating last fall, but found it to be more hassle than I liked. Turn-by-turn is what the TomTom was made for, and even with outdated data, it's much better than Google Maps mobile. It's in its third car now, and has guided numerous rentals in various parts of the country.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:10 AM on May 29, 2016


Found myself using Google Maps for the first time in forever to navigate yesterday. Generally I am using Apple Maps, because it talks to my car whereas Google Maps doesn't. No idea why, but the Google voiceover doesn't come through the car speakers via Bluetooth, but Apple does (lucky me, I missed out on CarPlay/AndroidAuto by 1 model year).

Used Google because for some directions Apple can never figure out where the hell I want to go. Search for "tailor" and it gives me directions to Taylor Louisiana... I'm in Minnesota. Search for an intersection in St. Paul and it gives me a town called "Paul" in Idaho. Not kidding on either. Generally if that happens I pull the location up in Google Maps so I can find a fully qualified street address, then send that to Apple. This time, no dice, so I used Google.

I hadn't ever seen the little indicators that popped up at intersections before, telling me about alternate routes while driving. Take suggested exit, follow route... But if I took this exit instead, I could get there 4 min slower. Would be damn useful while driving through construction or unexpected backups.

It's entirely optimized for driving. Which isn't a bad thing - you have to optimize the program for the intended use case.
posted by caution live frogs at 7:26 AM on May 29, 2016


> I'm about to finally buy a stand-alone GPS for use in Korea. Google and the ROK govt are having a feud over mapping data, making Google maps all but useless here.

Agree that Google Maps is no good in Korea. On my last visit I was relying on the Daum Maps app for getting around and the Subway Korea app for routes involving the subway.

Actually I've found even Google search to be pretty unusable for searching Korean topics in Korean. Google returns a whole lot of irrelevant search results while Naver's top search results almost always include what I wanted to find.
posted by needled at 7:42 AM on May 29, 2016


I'm quite certain that the rules about what city names appear or not on Google Maps at a certain zoom level are decided in part by how much they are requested by Google users. For instance, this map of the Paris region shows Giverny, an itsy-bitsy village of 500 people that is also a very popular tourist attraction. In other words, names are probably chosen by algorithms that take into account actual user behaviour and user-derived data, just like any other Google product.

In any case, I'm not convinced by the author's main argument. GM is indeed targetting mobile users, for whom readability is paramount. I suspect that its main use now is to be a substitute for on-board GPS (I see taxi drivers using it so I guess it's not that bad). In that context, "less" is a feature, not a bug. O'Beirne's well-balanced, information-rich maps may be perfect for paper maps and certain use cases, but they would be cluttered and pretty useless on a smartphone. Basically, what Prahan said above: there's what people perceive as useful and then there's what actual data say about user behaviour.

Use case: a couple of weeks ago a colleague and I found ourselves in the countryside of a foreign country, and GM provided us with the opening times of all the local supermarkets, and then directed us to the only place in the whole area still open at 9pm. GM may not have shown the name of the village or the name of the roads: this did not matter. But it showed the name of the supermarket, the opening times, and how to get there. Now, that's usefulness.
posted by elgilito at 7:48 AM on May 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


"If I were lost in this area, I know which map I would want to use."

Since Google Maps is mostly used on devices with built-in geolocation, one is now almost never lost unless one wants to be. Map design changes when reading a map is something for hobbyists, as opposed to an essential life skill.
posted by akgerber at 8:04 AM on May 29, 2016


Can I just point out how obnoxious it is in the "good" screenshot of the 2010 map of the NYC region that the most populous city in NJ, Jersey City, *isn't even labeled as existing* yet the smaller surrounding towns are? That's been an issue for quite a while and it makes no sense whatsoever.
posted by stagewhisper at 8:39 AM on May 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


…. also I'm only part way through the article and this may be mentioned already, but wtf is up with NYC subway stations being on the maps but not having *what lines they are* labeled? How is that useful to anyone?
posted by stagewhisper at 8:42 AM on May 29, 2016 [2 favorites]


not abandoning use cases they used to support

I worked at Google long ago and we talked about this problem all the time. (All of my projects are pretty much shut down now). The problem with "if you support something once you have to support it forever" is it makes it much harder to launch new, experimental products if it carries a 10 year commitment to support legacy use. There is a cost to maintaining old versions of things, and alternate versions of things, and it's way higher than folks who don't make software appreciate. No one is going to love Google for shutting down a beloved product (hello Google Reader!) or removing a previously relied-upon feature (fire roads). I think one of Google's weaknesses in business right now is people don't trust them to keep products around, particularly after the Google Plus debacle. But those decisions aren't made capriciously.

IMHO, it gets trickier because of Google's near-monopoly status in many markets. For the Western world there are exactly 4 sources of map data: Google, Apple, OpenStreetMap, and HERE. That's it. Google Maps has by far the dominant market share when people have a choice. So in situations like browsers they have an effective monopoly. I think that creates extra ethical obligation for Google to support multiple use cases and keep legacy features around longer. Ultimately a monopoly could create legal obligation, but that hasn't happened yet.

The importance of maps is why I'm such a big supporter and small contributor to OpenStreetMap and OpenAddresses. Those projects don't really produce good maps for end-user use, but they are making the map data available for free so that thousands of different map products can be developed. OSM has been hugely successful and its data now powers a lot of stuff. Not so much the primary navigation map you use on your phone, although some of those are OSM too. But if you've seen an interesting geographic visualization or a custom thematic map, odds are very good that it was built with OSM data.
posted by Nelson at 8:54 AM on May 29, 2016 [8 favorites]


No one is going to love Google for shutting down a beloved product (hello Google Reader

face suddenly freezes in rictis Oh, hello there.

I'm going to dispense with my usual spiel, and just say, it's worth looking at the flip side of that, that Reader's continued existence laid bare accusations that Google didn't care about its users. Its closing was a data point on the graph that can be seen now continued in Maps' "mobilization."
posted by JHarris at 11:12 AM on May 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


f on mobile, put your finger on the blue dot and hold it there, and it'll tell you the street address.

The issue was that I was one blue dot in a long line of identical blue dots, and I didn't know which one.

To add to the 'no design is perfect, allow choices' argument: people are not identical. They have different needs and different abilities. There are people who cannot distinguish between this and that colour, and there are lots of different variations of what those colour sets are: you cannot use colour for information in a design and have one setting that will work for everyone.

As a designer, you can and should work hard to get something that works well for as many people as possible. But you also have to accept that your design will also get in the way for some people, and you are failing them if you don't give them options. I find GM on the desktop far easier to use when I switch in my high-contrast, colour-remapping Chrome add-in. It looks truly disgusting, sure - the purple, tangerine and green chartreuse swatch is beyond acid casuality - but it means I can get the information I need. Doesn't work in Android (which has an 'experimental' mode or two, but they're... not nice.); it would be very simple to have a setting somewhere in GM for tweaking UI details, larded about with warnings and disable options. It would be very nice indeed if you could save, load and exchange those option settings with others.

But it never happens. UI is the ginger-haired stepchild of product dev; it is beholden to branding, to spec changes, to meddling from across the board. It is rarely treated as a proper engineering problem that needs an in-depth, engineering approach. I feel particularly strongly about GM because my personal situation has made it very important to me and I know enough about software engineering to see how it could be made much better for minimal cost and bad implications, but the whole business gives me the grump de touts grumps.
posted by Devonian at 3:05 PM on May 29, 2016 [7 favorites]


The issue was that I was one blue dot in a long line of identical blue dots, and I didn't know which one.

The dot that represents your position is a darker colour, has a white border, and a small triangle next to it indicating the direction you're moving in (or holding the phone in).
posted by effbot at 4:48 PM on May 29, 2016


On the other hand, the destination input function is still stuck in 2005.
You still need to work backwards (City -> Street -> Number), search outside pre-canned categories is horrible, and forget about using it to quickly add a detour.
--madajb

Google's big advantage over GPS units is their search engine. I was once driving with someone in an unfamiliar area and he really wanted a steak. So I just said the word 'steak' into Google search (not even Google Maps), and it showed the nearest steakhouse and when it was open. One button press and it was giving me verbal directions on how to get there.

I had a GPS unit, which I still had in the car 'just in case'. It got put in a drawer. It was orders of magnitude more difficult to use.

(I still have 'HERE' maps loaded in case I'm in an area w/o a cell signal).
posted by eye of newt at 1:46 AM on May 30, 2016


In some future history of UX design, this decade will be remembered as the death of Preferences.

My guess is that Preferences returns eventually, though there will be a meta-Preference setting that instructs the device/application/whatever to continually guess behind the scenes as to which collection of options will serve your individual needs best, and that Design in our current era will be seen as having over-fetishized simplicity, or, maybe more specifically, mistaking where simplicity/elegance is useful, and where it obstructs individual user experience. (In 2025, after our current trends have reached their nadir, with Preferences screens having literally disappeared from the landscape, Google, or one of its competitors, launches a rebranding with some variation on "Have it Your Way.")

(Sure, with a host of Preferences to choose, maintenance becomes more expensive/unwieldy, but that's an advantage the larger companies will have over the smaller, the ability to throw more resources at such a problem, and so it'll be in larger companies' interests to exploit that advantage by shifting user expectation toward the more-difficult-to-maintain. Plus Google's code repository will be overseen by AI-agents.)

(Oh, and maybe the catalyst for Design's shift here will be when Preferences are removed from Photoshop/etc. Or maybe there will be a programmer uprising when Preferences are removed from their IDE of choice.)
posted by nobody at 5:19 AM on May 30, 2016 [4 favorites]


Nelson: The importance of maps is why I'm such a big supporter and small contributor to OpenStreetMap and OpenAddresses. Those projects don't really produce good maps for end-user use

[muffled voice coming from under a rock]
I use Open Streetmap maps in my Garmin navigation system, and I like them just fine. Plus, they can be updated even if you're not running Windows, which is a problem with the native Garmin maps.
posted by Too-Ticky at 7:28 AM on May 30, 2016 [2 favorites]


not abandoning use cases they used to support
I worked at Google long ago and we talked about this problem all the time. The problem with "if you support something once you have to support it forever" ... there is a cost to maintaining old versions of things, and alternate versions of things, and it's way higher than folks who don't make software appreciate.


I make software. I get it, I appreciate that there's a cost and that sometimes from the user side of things you can't tell how much effort is going to be behind making a change or maintaining the status quo. Even hospitals have to make resourcing decisions when it comes to human life, we can do it with software, too. I've had these conversations with clients.

But with maps, we're talking about companies that aren't exactly resource poor.

And this is a finer-grained conversation than "if you support something once you have to support it forever."

Reader's shuttering is something that's gripe-able, but it was at least honest, had some degree of advance notice, and cleared the stage for competitors, and Google seems to be at least generally decent about providing data access to users of sunsetting SaaS.

I could criticize it -- it seems to me that decision was made, like many others, in the name of trying to coalesce the product story and user engagement around Google+... something like Reader is for the Old Web, we have to compete in the social silo'd web, This Is How We Do Things Now (specifically, sharing and reading content). And that's not totally wrong, but at the same time, it looks to me like what happened is that Google lost the engagement of most of the Reader base and Google+ is still an afterthought for most people. I imagine Inbox making its debut as the successor of Gmail with the announcement of the shuttering of the latter would have gone about as well. Conversely, I wonder if anyone at Google wishes they hadn't tried the approach of augmenting existing services for sharing and reading instead of playing the part of the guy who didn't get in on the popular party Facebook was throwing so they're going to have their own.

But Reader's shuttering was straightforward, it was clean. At least they didn't radically streamline it, taking out a dozen features existing users loved (all based on analytics that showed this was a minority use case, of course), but still taking up enough mindshare that competitors would have to wonder if there was space for them. And maybe it really did free up crucial resources for Google to do something else super important, though one might wonder exactly what that was at this point.

The things that really hurt are the removals that are driven by poorly considered applications of philosophies like this, which is one of several problematic poisons in the industry right now:

Options are the opposite of good design, they foist the effort of making a good design on the user. Instead the map should be made with the right design, or if there genuinely is a choice on what to do then make the choice automatically in response to the context. Don't make the user decide.

Some poisons are almost right molecules that'll bind to the right receptors and keep fully functional molecules from binding instead.

This is probably similar; it's almost right. Don't make the user decide is a great principle. For some reason, particularly as the totality laid out this way (go for THE right design, automatically make any "genuine" choices), it seems to go easily to don't let the user decide.

I think that's partly because it's easier to just make a generally defensible design decision than to actually figure out how to unobtrusively and sensibly make the option discoverable... much like it's easier to simply throw an option in the user's face rather than make a generally good design decision.

It might also be because it's easier to sell decisions based on Best Practices™ when managing up. Your boss and their boss may or may not be good at thoughtful UX, but they've heard people say options are bad UX, the ghost of Steve Jobs said so.
posted by wildblueyonder at 12:24 PM on May 30, 2016 [9 favorites]


User studies consistently showed that more information was perceived by users as more useful, without much regard for practicality. When asked to perform tasks with maps, however, a different picture emerges. There is definitely the possibility of having too little information, making tasks difficult or impossible.

For me, part of the problem is that Google has already already decided what my "task" is, regardless of what I'm actually trying to do. Maybe their changes have made that particular task (getting from point A to point B) somewhat easier. But I used to be able to use their maps for other things (what restaurants and other businesses within a one mile radius of my hotel) that are now much more difficult than they were even a couple of years ago.

I also think their fixation on search terms and keywords has diminished some of the utility of Maps, because they default to the assumption that I already know what I'm looking for, or at least that I already know what I hypothetically want. If I knew for certain that I wanted thai food, then great, there's a term to search. But what if all I want is "fast casual dining any style fountain soda place to sit"? There is no way to search for that. It's a known quantity, in that lots of restaurants offer it, but if I'm in a new city I just want to know what is nearby so that I can figure out which place is most likely going to give me what I want. There isn't a keyword for what I want, but I used to be able to look for it a lot more easily by just asking to see all the businesses surrounding a given address.

The last two cities I visited for business, I tried to do the whole "pull up hotel address and find nearby restaurants on Google Maps" routine. It was bizarre-- it was so much harder than it should have been, and so many places were just not listed anywhere on the app. When I was in Chicago, I had to do about four different searches to find a grocery store, because "grocery store" wasn't working.

I know that a lot of these little issues are matters of taxonomy ("this isn't listed under grocery store because it is listed under fresh market"), but the fact remains that I used to be able to do these things with Google Maps, and I can't anymore, or at least not quickly or easily, because their model has honed in on specific uses that only represent about 50% of how I used to use their product.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 9:56 AM on May 31, 2016 [2 favorites]


At least for the "place to eat" problem, Maps on Android does a good job at that. Tap the "Explore Food & Drinks" bar at the bottom and it gives you a plethora of options for styles of dining with photos, reviews, hours, etc. It's one thing where they managed to use the data from their Zagat acquisition well, IMO.
posted by wierdo at 6:58 AM on June 1, 2016


What happened to Google? It used to be essential. Now, not so much.

I quit using Google maps a while back because it was slow, buggy, and I couldn't easily find what I was looking for.

It's pretty horrible for me now too. ... So what's better?
posted by mrgrimm at 10:34 PM on June 1, 2016


New essay by Justin: Cartography comparison: Google maps & Apple maps.
posted by Nelson at 9:02 AM on June 2, 2016 [3 favorites]


New essay by Justin: Cartography comparison: Google maps & Apple maps.
"Google and Apple are both racing toward the goal of creating a 'universal map' that is useful to the majority of the world's population"

Whoa, cool!

"We based that statement on the fact that there a lot of Americans have Apple Maps installed!"

Wait. Aren't iOS users forced to have Apple Maps installed? Also, are we going to talk about non-mobile at all? Does iOS even have significant global penetration?

"As the two products gain a global perspective, we're going to compare them"

Oh, neat.

"To do this comparison, we're going to deliberately avoid looking at any place that isn't New York, San Francisco, or London"

*closes tab*

I think I agree with a lot of what this article is trying to do, but this kind of journalism really irks me. It's a beautiful piece that dances around a badly-flawed premise, which gives it just enough credibility to spread misinformation.

It's easy to hate, and I really want to like this, but this is just way, way, way too Silicon Valley-centric to claim to address a "global" issue in any meaningful capacity...

posted by schmod at 1:12 PM on June 6, 2016


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