A.-M. Nivala1, S. Brewster2, L.T. Sarjakoski1

1 - Department of Geoinformatics and Cartography, Finnish Geodetic Institute, Masala, Finland

2 - Department of Computing Science, University of Glasgow, Scotland, UK


Many people use online map services for locating places and businesses, and for planning visits to unfamiliar places. There are many such web sites, often freely available, to assist the users searching for locational information. However, the use of the map services is not always straightforward; usability problems may have a dramatic negative effect on the information obtained and may reduce future use of the sites (or any other map application).

The aim of the study presented here was to identify usability problems of commonly used public online map services. Four different map sites were evaluated: Google Maps, MSN Maps & Directions, MapQuest and The aim was to classify the typical problems faced by users, identified through different usability methods (expert evaluations and usability tests). Half of the evaluations were carried out with experts, during which eight usability engineers and eight cartographers examined the sites by paying attention to their features and functionality. They wrote down all the problems encountered. Additionally, eight usability tests were carried out with ordinary users in a usability laboratory, where each of the participants performed a set of map use tasks with each of the services.

In order to have comparable results, the experts and the test users were given the same user scenario about a tourist who is planning to visit London. This was done to set the scene about what they were supposed to do with the application and in which type of use situation they were supposed to act. The usability problems found were compared both quantitatively and qualitatively, and grouped into different categories according to their importance for the use situation.

The most common usability problems of the evaluated map services were related to the search operations the users performed to find out where different places were located. There were also many problems found related to map visualisation and map tools, like zooming and panning. Even commonly used map sites had many easily preventable usability problems. Recommendations for improvements of online map services, especially on the most important issues found, are given and discussed. The other important result presented is the use of the different usability evaluation methods, which each discovered different types of problems. The paper closes with a discussion and identification of some relevant future research topics.