Over the years, using maps on websites to present information has been a fairly common and popular technique. And even today I still hear colleagues, when developing content with them, utter the suggestion; “why don’t we present [whatever it is] by using a map?”
It is time for me, therefore, to place my critical pin on the CRYNO map, and say; “no! Please, no!” It’s time to stop using maps on your websites in arbitrary ways without really thinking about what it means for user experience. I will tell you why I believe this after I give brief praise to the map.
I love using maps (in some ways)
I adore maps of all kinds. I actually have a tendency to buy old (or very old) tattered maps from second-hand shops. I will scan at them for hours thinking about their names, geographies, and how people live, or lived, in these places. I also sometimes like to create a small map while reading a book, if it helps to bring the geography of a story to life in my head.
One of the most impressive and beautiful things I saw in a long time is a digitally mapped picture of the ‘Rivers of Wales’ by Dafydd Elfryn.
But none of these things have convinced me that it is a good thing to use maps on websites.
The disadvantages of using maps on websites
The common thread that runs through the examples I used above is that those maps represent something greater than themselves. They are some kind of an addition to the main narrative of the stories, or visual representation of something else that interests me; the thing I’m looking for. In itself, that does not make a map a bad thing.
But very often, I’ve seen maps placed on websites, whether that be an embedded Google Map or overlay maps covering other data, that seem to replace the main narrative of the site. Essentially, a map provides a poor experience for users who just want to navigate your website. As well as being inaccessible to disabled users.
Using maps as the primary means of navigation
This for me is the greatest problem with using maps on websites. It is not difficult to find sites with have home pages, or search result pages on which the map acts as a major feature.
In the same way as you do not navigate through a book using a map, you should not expect users to navigate a website that way. It is a bad experience for users – particularly those looking at your website on a phone or tablet.
For example, if the intention is to display events happening across Wales, by all means feel free to show a map somewhere to represent those events. But the map should not be the main element on that page. And it is not on that map which you should expect users to click for more information about an event.
Displaying information on a website by means of a map is an additional visual element. Nothing more. It is a visual representation that helps you to see the big picture. In my opinion it is not a method to navigate information.
Screen size considerations
Another drawback is that a map tends to fill the screen, especially smaller screens. If you have not had an opportunity to explain what is represented by the map in the first place, a full screen map is not going to help anyone.
In my experience maps also tend to slow down web pages significantly. Especially when embedding Google Maps, or maps that pull information from several sources or databases.
If the mobile user’s experience of your website is important to you (and should be) – then put that map to one side.
But what if I want to find information locally?
Localization and local data will be an important trend in the coming years, especially for mobile users. But this is the exact reason not to use maps!
You can submit local information in much more effective methods using location data through a browser, or the geolocation of the mobile device (with the permission of the user, of course). This allows you to provide a list of results (eg local events) with the nearest results first. All this without the need for a map to navigate from one event to another.
Exceptions where using maps is forgivable
There are some forgivable exceptions of course. It’s okay if you use maps to visualize data, or convey a striking idea. But always offer another method of navigating the site and its information. A map is a tool for visual representation and no more.
Also, if you are a brick and mortar business who has a public trading address, you can use a map location as a guide to interested customers. But not at the expense of stating your full address on your website.
Do you agree? I would not be surprised if many will disagree with me on this. Leave a comment below so we can discuss these maps a bit more!