The starting point in the study of usability is the users themselves. These may be professional users such as administrative personnel and planners; some important groups of dedicated map users including children, the visually impaired, tourists, military, mass media, Internet users, ubiquitous/mobile users; along with occasional and amateur users.
Because of the large number and variation of users, map design should always be user oriented (user-centred design) and be based on good knowledge about the elements of usability. Today, maps are most often digital and interactive and thus users are able to dynamically retrieve data for display and analysis from data bases. The representation of information needs to be different for different user groups. The previous situation where maps were graphical presentations with limited data contents that needed interpretation no longer applies. The limitation of the map now is more often the small size of the screen in the display equipment. The design of map interfaces for Internet, mobile devices etc. creates a most demanding design problem. The special users of maps like visually impaired people would enjoy also various forms of interaction using tactual and audio interfaces to maps. For navigation and way finding applications even more exciting interfaces have been developed like augmented realities in helmets and intelligent clothes. The creation of usability tests – both qualitative and quantitative – for new maps and other visualizations, for example multivariate visualization techniques, is a challenging field.
Understanding cartographic communication is the starting point for both map design and usability analysis. Cognition and visual perception have been analysed in order to get theoretical basis for map design rules. Perception of maps leads to information acquisition and learning about the topic. Research in psychology and physiology, which cartographers should be aware of, continuously reveals new knowledge about the human perception processes: it would seem valuable to follow this and ensure that visual perception, as well as audio and tactual perception is taken into account. Learning theories based on contemporary approaches to perceptual studies also support map design and map use research.
The users themselves are finding, querying, reading and applying maps in different ways than before. Research into methods of data assimilation and use of maps and geospatial data in particular situations (e.g. personal navigation) is necessary to assess the impact of contemporary displays in, for example, satellite navigation systems, public map displays and through unconventional media such as mobile devices. The role and meaning of mental maps, cartoids and cartograms are emphasized among researchers of cartographic communication. The skill of spatial thinking and spatial understanding of problems must be kept as the basis of map design.
It is clear that an increasingly large number of map users are accessing cartographic products through mobile and position-enabled devices. It is absolutely essential that such forms of map use, here related to the broad field of location based services, are effectively undertaken, and both the technology and the use of location based services are areas of prime concern to cartographic researchers. Adaptive maps modify themselves according to their location as well as the preferences and situation of the user. Contemporary research on navigation systems, satellite systems like the global navigation satellite system and other positioning methods should be carefully examined by cartographers to detect synergies.