Once upon a time I ran usability studies on Google Maps back when state-of-the-art in mobile technology meant installing a Java app on your phone. (Yes, I know nobody in the real world actually did this, but back in 2006 us mobile geeks wanted to believe.) To make sure I knew the ins and outs of the technology I would be basing the study on, I took a Motorola Razr V3 to the streets of San Francisco to see what it was like to have Google Maps in my pocket. At the time, it felt like living in the future.
It’s been fun watching the evolution of maps on mobile devices since then. The current Apple maps accuracy debacle is interesting, but it has caused other important changes in the maps app to be overlooked.
When I was testing Google Maps on that Razr, my initial excitement died down pretty quickly. As soon as I tried to do anything other than find my current location I hit a brick wall. I remember standing on a street corner, spending no less than 10 minutes entering an address on that tiny numeric keypad. There was no question that I was holding some extremely cool technology in my hands, but I had to admit that in practical terms it was useless.
Touchscreen devices have taken us a long way from those days. But searching maps always involves the worst-case scenario for text input. Autocorrect has to be disabled, which makes typing a location extremely fiddly. Combine this with some of the common scenarios for using a maps app: while you’re walking down the street; while you’re talking to someone trying to find the address of that restaurant you want to go to; while you’re in the car driving. In short, you’re forced to fly without autopilot when you’re at your most distracted.
Apple now has added search suggestions to maps. Type a few letters, tap on one of the items in the suggestions list. This alone makes it vastly easier and faster to find things. ’Nuff said.
Vector Map Tiles
One of the many benefits of using vector map tiles instead of the old bitmap tiles is that much less data has to be sent to your phone. Again, common usage scenarios involve being out and about on the cell phone network rather than on a fast Wi-Fi connection. In my usage, the new maps load much faster and I can pan and zoom without constantly staring at the empty grid pattern.
Tap for Info
Lastly, it’s now possible to tap on a business or point of interest for more information. This has been a feature of Google Maps on the desktop web for so long that it was a regular and unwelcome surprise not to be able to do the same on the iPhone. There are times when it’s quicker to zoom in on a known location and tap for info instead of typing an address. Each time the old maps app didn’t behave this way was a slight frustration.
There’s a common theme running through all these improvements: speed. Maps have to be accurate, yes, and by most accounts Apple has their work cut out for them in that area. But as I found out when I was testing Google Maps back in the bad old days of flip phones, speed can make or break a mapping app just as effectively as bad data, and any improvement in that area is welcome.
After all the negative publicity, I was surprised to find myself liking the new maps app much better than the old Google Maps-based one. These improvements don’t make for good linkbait headlines. You can’t demo them like you can with Flyover in order to sell phones. And they certainly aren’t groundbreaking never-been-done-before features – indeed, they’ve been present in Google Maps on the desktop and Android for some time. But that doesn’t make them any less of an improvement for all iPhone users. Unlike Flyover, you benefit from these refinements every time you use the app. As always in design, the details matter.
There are still more improvements that could be made. Yelp integration is good, but making you switch to the slow-loading Yelp app to find out key information like opening hours is a sub-par experience. And yeah, there’s that whole accuracy thing that maybe someone should look at. Details, right?
Update: Lukas Mathis makes a good point (via email):
The main usability difference I noticed is that, with Apple’s new app, I can’t easily zoom. There’s a threshold for rotation; if you don’t pinch your fingers reasonably straight, the map starts to rotate. Happens to me about once every three or four times, and it’s driving me bonkers…
I wish there had been as much of an uproar last year when Google Maps was mistakenly placing my zip code in Inwood, all the way at the northernmost tip of Manhattan, rather than in the Lower East Side where it actually is. It might not have remained that way for 6 months. ↩
They are also very responsive. I had the chance to use maps on a Nexus when Google first switched to vector map tiles on Android. Panning and zooming was sluggish. I don’t know whether this was due to the underpowered GPU dealing with complex vector data, poorly tuned software, or something else. This seems to be a non-issue on current devices, but it seemed to me that Google pushed out vector tiles before they were ready. ↩
Food for thought: Apple is reported to have spent almost $270 million to acquire C3 Technologies, the company behind the 3D Flyover feature. A feature that adds almost nothing to the real-world utility of the maps app. Should that money be accounted for as R&D or marketing? ↩
Can we get rid of splash screens once and for all please? ↩