Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration

Web Map Usability: Don’t Take Away Features Just Yet!

March 21st, 2011

A Web map needs to be easy to use. Duh. Easy enough concept, but how do you really implement it? You can use usability testing when the Web map is finished but when just starting a project, what principles do you go by in order to achieve this ease of use that everyone so (rightly) covets?

One thing you should not do: get rid of features solely for the sake of simplification. In fact, Donald Norman, the author of several design books, says, “simplicity does not mean fewer features.” To argue his point he talks about tools that are very simplistic in design but yet take a while to learn how to use. A pencil would be a good example of this. Other objects that are simplistic just don’t do very much, like a garage door opener. Yet other objects are simple yet are fairly hard to figure out like a pair of salt and pepper shakers where you can’t determine which is which.

One thing you should do: organize the features in a logical way. Norman’s example for this is an airplane cockpit. There are a whole lot of buttons, levers, and other devices in there but they are organized in such a way as to enhance the usability of the cockpit. I’m not sure that he is arguing that a cockpit is simple, since it seems fairly clear that it is not. However, the central thesis is that

Taking away features increases usability but decreases functionality, and is not really necessary. (In my own words.)

If you can, instead, figure out a way to integrate, blend, and organize those features, you can keep the functionality and increase the usability at the same time!

Somewhat Related:
Take the American FactFinder website – the new version. I tried to use it about a month ago, had some trouble figuring it out*, went to the help feature, and discovered the most unhelpful help ever. No actually, I take that back. Most help files are extremely unhelpful. You know why? Because they simply state the obvious. I want to yell at the help and say things like, “Yes I knew that the box that says ‘parameters’ is the place where I type my parameters, but what I want to know is what the h*$% is a parameter and is there a list of them somewhere?”

*I just discovered that I am not alone in having trouble using it so I feel less like an idiot now.



  • MicahWilli says on: March 21, 2011 at 4:50 pm


    Design is a test of balance.
    It’s no secret that GIS Webmaps are moving towards less buttons. What I find difficult is knowing what buttons to move/hide/remove so that my users are not overwhelmed but still productive. Grouping buttons or functions may look cool, but it adds a ‘click’ to the workflow.

  • Kris says on: March 21, 2011 at 6:20 pm


    I like the analogy of the airplane cockpit. Two ways that I like to think about the organization you’re suggesting is from our own world: scale and layering. For example, at first glance at a USGS topo map you can get a good feel for the overall lay of the land such as what populated areas are around and the overall topology of the area. It’s almost immediately usable. As you look closer and dig deeper you begin seeing many more details than you did when you first looked at it.

    Web map designers can approach their applications in the same way – create a layered (or scaled) view of the functionality. Commonly used functionality can be presented in an obvious and easy to understand manner to the user. More complex and less used functionality can be exposed in subsequent “layers”. In this way a user at any level has a less interrupted view of the functionality they are interested in using. As much as we like to complain about Microsoft, they do a nice job of just this type of design. Take a look at Outlook or Word and you’ll see the obvious, commonly used functionality readily available in the ribbons. If you need more specific functionality, you can dig deeper into the ribbons and menus for more.


  • Gretchen says on: March 21, 2011 at 7:11 pm


    I see your point about the extra clicks. Think creatively to allow that functionality without extra clicks (or use menus for lesser used functions). Also, sometimes a visual grouping is all that is needed.

  • JRigs says on: March 23, 2011 at 5:35 pm


    +1 on the useless help files. I hate that (yes, I’m looking at you too, ESRI).

Cartographer's Toolkit

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