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!
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.