Clarifying Casual Powers in Maps

I often find myself explaining my research project (as many academics, and PhDs especially, do) and when doing so, Google Maps comes as easy and recognisable example of:

  1. a digital map
  2. that is widely used
  3. by non-professional users
  4. who are not accounting for the designers’ manipulation of additional elements in maps’ interface (=not aware of maps’ power).

Yet, sometimes it is hard for me to synthesize the problematic and issues within such use to a succinct short explanation. Thus comes this image-based post. While being short, it contains 3 rather evocative pictures, and is thus worth at least 3000 words.

Following are three screenshots taken on my laptop yesterday. Each time I performed the following :

  1. opened Google Maps
  2. zoomed in my location,
  3. searched for Amsterdam’s Central Station and pressing the direction (arrows) button.
  4. requested directions from my current location by
    1. searching for “uva singel”
    2. selecting Amsterdam University’s library building that always came as first prompt in the search box (the new google maps doesn’t allow  – at least for now – using ‘My Location’ as navigational input)
  5. selecting the ‘walking’ icon.

I did so in three different configuration: In Firefox browser while logged into my google account, the same without being logged and in Internet Explorer 11, not logged in – as control of sorts.

Firefox, logged-in. Click to enlarge.

Firefox, logged-in. Click to enlarge.

Firefox, not logged-In. Click to enlarge.

Firefox, not logged-In. Click to enlarge.


Internet Expoler, not logged-in. Click to enlarge.

Internet Expoler, not logged-in. Click to enlarge.


Google Maps (GM) ‘sees’ me in a different way when it ‘knows’ who I am and what it doesn’t. Needless to say that as my Gmail is constantly opened on other tab, the chances that I will use GM without being logged-in are miniscule.  Google’s business model is built on delivering exceptional and free user experience, in return for providing traceable data, and they do it well.

Here, I focus primarily on highlighted objects along the path from my then location to the station. This is naturally the screen area when user’s eyes would wander, as she performs the required mental gymnastics of pre-navigation. In my work I often go into different and deeper kinds of analysis taken from classic cartography as well as User Interface (UI)/User Experience (UX) and HCI, i.e. the size and type of fonts used; the colour schemes, saliency of certain words or icons, and – perhaps the most important – the affordances awarded by the configuration of the GUI to encourage or discourage certain types of actions.

What does GM knows about me as an existing user? Well, that I’m probably not a tourist, for starters. While the signed-in version clearly highlights food and drink places along the route (bar-cafe “In De Wildeman” and restaraunt “Yokio”), in both non signed-in versions those places are absent and instead there’s an extra hotel where the bar was. The old church – a popular touristic destination marking the edge of Amsterdam’s (in)famous red-light district –  also makes appearance, while not being visible in the signed-in view.  The markings for secondary-level places, such as neighbourhoods or areas (Damrak and Oudezijds Achterburgwal) also appear only in the ‘touristy’ version, probably assuming that I know the area well enough not to navigate according to general names but using my own mental maps.

The difference between the non-signed in versions of Firefox and Internet Explorer exists, even if barely noticeable. Another hotel (A-Train) and neighbourhood (Westertoegang) make appearances on the nothern part of the map. The differences surprised me, as I was expecting to see a similar view, but after some digging I now tend to attribute them to Firefox’s toolbars resulting in slightly larger window on IE and subsequently displaying additional information that was deemed to cramped for irefox’s display area. This might also have to do with the different implementation of ‘under the hood’ elements such JavaScript, ActiveX and Flash on IE also changing display area (note that Google’s “Earth” view on Firefox becomes “Satellite” view on IE, lacking the tilting and rotating options in Firefox. In any case, the difference is inconsequential to this analysis.

So What? Or: Why Unimportant Maps are Important

This is where my work diverges from the big ‘P’ politics of ontological wars and into the seemingly obscure mundaneness of quotidian life. While critical cartographers of old have rightfully and extensively dealt with the big maps of empires and urban planning, for me it is the minute differences in Google Maps presented day after day to an unsuspecting user that carry the utmost consequences. The designers of such maps include imagined users in their constant tweaking – the tourist, the traveller, the cafe-hopping hipster. The success and failure of GM depends on their ability to understand the user and embed itself as seamlessly as possible into his or her dailly conduct.

Fact of the matter is, I clicked on the “In de Wideman” bar icon, and subsequently website address. I did so before any other action, not due to my intellectual curiosity in the map, but because the name evoked some vague memory and interest. I still can’t remember why. I think I visited the place once, but I can’t be sure. I clearly remember doing some Wikipedia digging around the concept of the Wildman,  but for the life of me I can’t remember whether this had to do with this particular bar or with Kate Bush’s song. In any case I ended up clicking on the bar’s website and spent some time browsing, as it hit the right buttons for me – big selection of beer, historical setting, vaguely interesting mythological name. Is it a coincidences that while logged-in as “me” GM chose to highlight specifically this place along my path? I suspect not, similarly to how the other highlighted spot was a Sushi restaurant, a type of food I frequently enjoy, and not – for instance – a Thai or Mexican place. Would I been less stressed on time, or planning to meet friends that evening, this little cafe icon might have resulted in me visiting this place.

And this is it, really. Design, and  UI/UX design in particular, has profound influence on users behaviours, there’s nothing new there. Maps act as seemingly objective place-holders for spatial knowledge, innocuously masquerading their power behind usefulness and habit – that two is widely discusses by critical cartographers for several decades now. But it is in combining the two that new territory arises, in the realization on how far the smallest map interface choice can and will influence users; and how maps are far more likely than other digital artefacts to allow and enact behaviour changes in the physical world.



Not so short as I thought initially 🙂

Leave a Reply