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The atlas of experience

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Traditionally, cartographers have had a limited scope of doing actual user research. But the growing interest that the domain has experienced in the recent times calls for increased attention to use, user and usability research in cartography and geoinformation processing

Maps appeal to many people. Therefore, maps have often been used for decoration purposes and imaginary cartography projects like The Atlas of Experience (van Swaaij & Klare, 2000) became very popular. Throughout history maps have been made “for fun” by people who are just excited about maps. These days maps are made for fun even by non-professionals because it is relatively easy to produce your own maps with tools like Google Maps. Many people are making neogeography maps which are meant for their personal use only.

However, most maps, or tools to generate maps, are made to be used by others as well. This is because maps are effective and efficient tools to communicate geospatial information. The most important function of map displays is to create generalised overviews to scale of the visible and invisible world in which people move and act. Static paper maps have always provided answers to the ‘where and what’ questions, and today’s interactive and mobile maps are giving answers to even the ‘when’ question too.

Growing interest in use, user and usability research
About 60 years ago, we saw the birth of scientific map-use research, which investigated whether maps provided such answers in an effective, efficient and satisfying way. Those efforts led to better maps and made geospatial tools more popular than before. However, in the second half of the past century, user research suffered from a number of problems. First, there were not enough academic cartographers around. The ones who were there had to focus on the rapid technological developments such as transition from paper maps to computer-generated dynamic map displays. Secondly, until the turn of the century, (re-)production of a new map display in the professional cartographic domain was relatively expensive and time-consuming despite the introduction of computer-assisted cartography. Therefore, the results of usability research could not be implemented immediately in an improved map product. Also, professional cartographers did not have enough resources to do sensible user research.

However, with the technological revolution slowing down a bit in the last decade or so, and interactive and dynamic maps becoming commonplace, the interest in use, user and usability research in cartography has grown enormously. This growing interest has ensured that the results of research can be implemented rather easily and quickly with fewer expenses than ever before. The technological revolution has also introduced new techniques for this kind of research.

User research challenges
User research in cartography could be classified into two categories: research that looks into the cognitive aspects (dealing with questions such as how maps work and how human beings derive meaning from map displays?) and more functional and holistic user research that deals with the questions ‘Does it (the map) work?’ (van Elzakker & Griffin, 2013). This distinction is reflected by the existence of two separate commissions in the International Cartographic Association: the Commission on Cognitive Visualisation (www.geo.uzh.ch/ microsite/icacogvis/ ) and the Commission on Use and User Issues (www.univie.ac.at/icacomuse/ ).

Since its establishment in 2007, the members of the Commission on Use and User Issues realised that the focus should not anymore be solely on investigating the usability of map products through common research techniques like questionnaires and interviews (which even today happens to be a common conception of cartographic user research for many professionals and students in the geospatial domain). The members shifted focus to more current and relevant cartographic user research issues like the full implementation of user-centred design; the need for more attention to requirement analysis; the implementation of new research techniques; the need for broadening of research scope and for doing research in the proper context; and the developments in the fields of neogeography and neocartography.

In the past, many cartographers pleaded for standardisation of map designing and suggested introduction of more mapreading courses in education. However, cartographic standardisation could not be achieved easily (except in, for instance, hydrographic and aeronautical charting) and there was hardly any room for map-use education in the school curricula. While cartographers, as the geoinformation communication specialists did take into account the intended uses and users of the maps they had to design, they did not do that in a systematic way. Besides, they also did not do systematic usability research themselves or could not implement the results of such research immediately. Nowadays, there are more and more pleas for following systematic user-centred design approaches. In such approaches, sometimes referred to as usability engineering, the usability of a map product is still investigated but prototype improvements can also be implemented rather easily and iteratively because technology allows this.

Even more importantly, it is pertinent to pay much more systematic attention to the first stage of user-centred design — the ‘requirement analysis’ stage, which is perhaps even more important than usability testing. In this regard, cartographers can learn a lot from the general industrial product and software designers who are more familiar with so-called requirements engineering. Cartographers should also interact with specialists in the field of human-computer interaction (HCI), just like they did at a workshop on GeoHCI in Paris in April 2013 (https:// geohci2013.grouplens.org/ ). A more intensive exchange of knowledge would help because HCI-researchers too have indicated that they want to increase their geospatial understanding as location-based services, navigation systems and applications like Google Maps have become more popular.

In cartographic and geospatial domains, there has been limited application of specific user research methods and techniques. The tendency was, and very often still is, to ask the opinions of representative users through surveys and interviews. This tendency is also brought about by the idea that research must always be quantitative and that many test persons must be involved. However, from other design disciplines we may learn that the implementation of alternative as well as qualitative user research methods and techniques has and can lead to results which are more useful, particularly in the earlier stages of the user-centred design process. For instance, Delikostidis (2011) applied a combination of user research techniques based on the ‘think aloud method’. In the requirement analysis stage for the design of a prototype of a new pedestrian navigation system, he asked representative test persons to execute a number of navigation tasks. While they were executing these tasks, Delikostidis observed their actions, and the surrounding environment with video recording and mobile screen logging. He asked them to speak out loud what they were thinking during the task execution. This test was preceded by a questionnaire and concluded by an interview. This combination of research techniques was also used to test the first version of his prototype and revealed many useful insights. Indeed, the mixed methods approach appears to be very useful as each method focuses on a different use aspect.

A new user research method which arouses lot of interest in geospatial domain is ‘eye-tracking’. It is clear that this technique also makes sense only in a mixed methods setting because we need to know why and when users look at something in particular. User research techniques like eye-tracking and thinking aloud were already known outside the geospatial domain. The main issue is how to implement these methods and techniques in the geospatial domain which presents a very specific use and user environment. After all, when users use map tools, they link the surrounding geographical environment with what they already know about that environment (their ‘mental maps’) and the representation of that environment (through e.g. a map display). This is what happens, for instance, when human beings use navigation systems.

Such systems also establish the fact that when doing user research in cartography, a focus on map-use alone will be too limited. After all, in navigation systems as well as many other modern cartographic dissemination tools, the dynamic and interactive map displays are embedded in specific hardware and software environments with specific interfaces. They are the windows of specifically designed databases filled with specific geographic data. The requirements, uses, users and usability of these databases, interfaces, hardware and software tools have to be investigated in conjunction with the map displays themselves to better help the users who are in need of geoinformation. In short: a ‘broadening of scope’ is required in cartographic user research.

Another user research issue is that the investigations have to be executed in ‘proper use context’. This does not only mean that navigation systems have to be tested in the field, but, by preference, also by test persons who are in need of geospatial information. The test persons should be really engaged and eager to find an answer to their ‘where, when and what’ questions.

The recent trend of neogeography
Nowadays, people voluntarily collect geographic data, generate maps and share their maps with others. This trend has led to initiatives like the OpenStreetMap. Investigating the usability of OpenStreetMap, its uses and its users (who are also the data generators) is one of the most challenging research issues. We should not only look at the resulting volunteered geographic information (VGI) and map displays, but also at the hardware and software tools that are used for collecting and uploading the geographic data. The results of such research could really help to further stimulate the application of VGI for solving geographic problems of our world. In view of the relatively short tradition of use, user and usability research in the geospatial domain, much work remains to be done.


  • Delikostidis, I. (2011), Improving the usability of pedestrian navigation systems. Enschede, University of Twente, Faculty of Geo-Information and Earth Observation (ITC), 2011. ITC Dissertation 181.
  • Moseme, M.T. & C.P.J.M. van Elzakker (2012), Neogeography Map Users and Uses. In: Proceedings of AutoCarto 2012 : the international symposium on Automated Cartography, Columbus, Ohio, USA, September 16-18, 2012.
  • Van Elzakker, C.P.J.M. & K. Wealands (2007), Use and users of multimedia cartography. In: Multimedia cartography. / ed. by W. Cartwright, M. Peterson and G. Gartner. Second edition. Berlin : Springer, 2007.
  • Van Elzakker, C.P.J.M. & A.L. Griffin (2013), Focus on geoinformation users : cognitive and use / user issues in contemporary cartography. In: GIM International, 27 (2013)8 pp. 20-23.
  • Van Swaaij, L. & J. Klare (2000), The Atlas of Experience. Translated by D. Winner. Bloomsbury USA; Har/Map edition.