Design vs innovation
Interesting projects from the MIT Mobile Experience Lab

Exhibit A of underwhelming design: the "new" Google Maps

(Update: for a peek into the DDI2014 conference, check out my previous post on Design vs Innovation.)

With all that talk by very successful multimedia designers and other creative types making jibes at big companies during DDI2014, it is easy to forget that sometimes, such designers (maybe not the ones at the conference, but at least their colleagues) can fall flat on their face quite spectacularly. Case in point: the "new" Google Maps, although it is not so new anymore. Why did anyone think it was a good idea to remove the navigation button that lets you explore the surroundings by yourself, or just check the name of a nearby street that doesn't appear in the corner of the map you're looking at? Checking the name of nearby streets can be useful when you're driving so that you know to get ready for a turn. (And yes people can use GPS, but sometimes the GPS doesn't give you the route you want to take, for instance if you want to take a scenic route or avoid a toll highway.) Exploring stores on side streets if you plan to be walking through the neighborhood doesn't seem like such an outlandish idea either. Isn't the first rule of design to ask users how they use the map? Because I have a hard time imagining I'm the only one who wants to be able to get information from the map besides the route that Big Brother Google has helped me pick (even if I get to adjust it). 

At a more conceptual level, I thing today's online maps are really terrible, given what the web allows us to do. For instance, one could imagine multiple layers on a map, color-coded to show restaurants or hotels or coffee shops or residences. (By that I mean that the whole building would be color-coded.) Even better: you could use the information that businesses put on Google Maps to tell users (or provide an option for the users to see if they so wish) which businesses are still open at a certain time and give an idea of whether the area is deserted or full of activity. It'd be good to get such information for pedestrians and not just car traffic. 

On one hand, Google Maps and Mapquest are free services, so there is only so much users should ask of them. On the other hand, since their revenue management philosophy relies on advertisement, maybe the loss of the navigation button on Google Maps is associated with a desire to gather more actionable information about users' searches - if I use the navigation button to look around, Google won't know what exactly I'm looking at. If I use the "search nearby" function, Google knows what I'm interested in and what link I ultimately click on. 

In the end, you can't wish for Google Maps to look more like Paula Scher's iconic, colorful maps. That just wouldn't be practical; however, there has to be better ways to visually convey information than what Google Maps or Mapquest have been doing. I like some of the things the folks at Google Creative Lab have been doing, but not with respect to maps. (To be honest, their contribution vs the contribution of Google's engineering team isn't completely clear to me. Maybe all the blame should rely on the engineers.)

If Google is to remain a symbol of tech-driven creative energy, it might want to step up its game a little. There hasn't been much creative in the way they have handled maps or even email. (For instance, visualization tools to sift through and organize email should be a lot stronger. Today's email appears in long vertical lists on the screen and is classified using text labels. If you look for an email and don't remember exactly the words in the email or the date, you have to go through long email chains to find what you're looking for - which in my case, is often an attachment someone sent me without using a descriptive title. I wish there was a "notes" function on Gmail, but there is not. In this day and age, you should for instance have visualization tools showing you the email exchanges you've had with a given person over a period of time and the topic of those exchanges with little snippets of the email containing the key words and icons showing you which documents had been attached to which email. I also think there should be, for Gmail, something to be gained from the oft-maligned Google+ in the way that emails vs posts are displayed in the composition window, making email composition a lot more visual than text-driven. Or at least an option to better visualize previous emails in a chain while you are composing your answer.)

I'm not saying it should be free. I like Gmail - it is far superior to any webmail service I've used. I understand we are already lucky to have "free" services like Gmail or Yahoo! Mail that shift the revenue-making part of the equation onto advertisers. Maybe one day Apple will develop a webmail type of service that it can bundle into the pricing of its computers. (Actually, that would be a great idea, although I'm not sure that it wouldn't be a distraction for them from their core products.) I'm just saying, if you want to brand yourself as a tech-creative pioneer, you've got to make sure you can deliver in terms not only of technology but also creativity for the products you put in the marketplace. Maybe that's not Google's goal: it is first and foremost a technology company. But then one has to wonder what the folks at Google Creative Lab would have been capable of doing if they'd been at a company that valued design and creativity a little more.

Comments

Is the issue with Google Maps loss of functionality or loss of convenience? You can still get to street view by passing through the information "card" for some identified location close enough to use as the starting point for your exploration. Post of the motivation for the change might have been compatibility with the card interface in Google Now. It also may be that users more frequently want to search around a business or landmark (as I do when looking for parking lots) than around arbitrary map points (middle off Elm St.), in which case anchoring on a known landmark makes sense.

Paul: In my case it's loss of functionality. Maybe the post makes it sound like a "nice thing to have", but when I drive I need to be able to zoom on parts of the map that the new Google Maps is not letting me do. This is particularly true for long-distance drives when at the end, driving into the city, Google Maps wants me to take exits and drive to my destination in ways I don't want to do. I want to correct the itinerary (I particularly want to know if Google agrees it's doable or if there's a one-way street I'm not aware of) But I can't zoom on that part of the itinerary because of the lack of navigation button. I also don't necessarily know monuments on the route. If I knew the route I wouldn't need Google Maps... Maybe the Google folks don't understand that some people actually use their car (gasp) to drive (gasp) long distances. It just boggles the mind how they had a perfectly fine product before and made it worse.

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