Google does it, Apple does it, but do your maps use landmarks to improve users’ familiarity? More to the point, why aren’t popular landmarks a standard GIS dataset?
For more than 10 years now we’ve known that the majority of the population use spatial recognition to navigate. When I say “majority.” I mean women and gay men. Okay, controversial? Maybe, but the facts are backed up by research. There is a large divide between the spatial recognition of men and women. This is believed to be rooted as far back as cavemen times: when men used to hunt they tended to create mental maps and then mentally superimpose their position on the maps, while women would gather and need to remember landmarks .
As research improves and more understanding comes to light, it becomes more evident that we may not be reaching our whole audience with our maps.
Let’s go over the numbers:
- According to Geohive, in 2010 there were 3,477,829,638 males worldwide and 3,418,059,380 females worldwide. 
- In February 2005, New Scientist found that gay men read maps in the same way as women. 
- The Kinsey report states that on average 10% of men are homosexual (35% have homosexual tendencies but that’s not in the scope of this article). 
So, in total there are approximately (as of 2010), 3,765,842,343 men and women who are genetically ‘wired’ to navigate through the use of landmarks, which is over 55% of the world population. Of course, this is very generic and there will be a proportion of women who think like men and so on; these are only rough estimations based on research and known articles, but it does make you think.
If more than half the population navigates more using landmarks, why aren’t there more landmark-based maps? Why don’t we see landmark-focused sat navs?
Let me tell you a little story. I’ve recently been on holiday, and the great thing about holidays is those tourist maps. What’s great about them? They are designed to help you get around a city or town which you know nothing about but also to show you all the sights you want/should/need to see. They can be really hit or miss, but some are true gems. Take for example this one (click on each map to see it in high-res):
Yes, even though I live a mere 20 miles away, I went to the Isle of Wight. But what you see here is a perfect example of a map based on landmarks. I have to admit, this was a pretty useful map; we had an idea of where to go and what we could see when we were there.
But as a map to navigate by, it is dreadful. For starters there are no roads marked to figure out HOW to get to the landmarks.
This got me thinking though: surely there must be some examples out there of maps whereby the designer has created a road map which shows landmarks for recognition.
Here are some of the better ones I found:
I know these places pretty well (maybe not Hirafu so much), and if I were to use these maps, I would no doubt find where I was going with ease. Even though I am a male and apparently use mental maps, the landmarks provide a good indication (on the ground) of where it is you are. From a non-geo-person perspective, you can look up, see, and relate to the visual object near you to identify where you are and where you need to go.
One map I found was far superior to these. It not only had the landmarks on a very detailed street map, but it was also a scalable web map, and there is also a mobile version. Not only did the landmarks have icons but also you could click on them to see them in 3D or even a photo. I am of course talking about Google Maps.
©Google Maps 2015
When looking at the research, it would appear that Google maps ticks all the boxes: it has a landmark on almost every street which allows for easy spatial recognition, and from a cartographic point of view the street map view is extremely clean and clear.
Should We All Mimic Google Maps?
No, not really. By looking at the sheer volume of tourist maps that use landmarks to show features, we see there are a multitude of ways to display the information and to make the information easily digestible. It is true that Google has done an amazing job of making such a complete and easy product; that is a testament to the years of development and user interaction. But is a navigational map; it makes it easy to find places and has to be extremely generic about it, too.
Should We All Mimic Apple Maps?
Maybe, though it wouldn’t translate too well to paper! Again, Apple has done an amazing job of creating a product that has features that are instantly recognizable. Walking down the street you have no doubts about where you are and where to go to. Landmarks are obviously marked, and road names are clear. I’m not sure what the street maps are like but these fly-over maps are perfect for navigating by.
Who’s Your Audience?
The point of this rather long-winded blog is that there are more factors to consider outside of the cartography (see the OS cartoblog)
when creating a map, the most important of those being the audience. If you know that your map will be used for navigation by women, then you may do well to consider landmarks and easily legible road names, as this blog suggests.
What if you aren’t creating a map for women to navigate by? You could still consider landmarks, as we all use some form of spatial recognition. When we look at maps on the web or paper, the first thing we look for is familiar patterns or locations, followed by names.
No matter how cool you wish to make your map, if it doesn’t make it easy for the user to understand, then it is failing its purpose.
Don’t worry though, if it fails in its purpose as a map, maybe it would do well at being a work of art….
Image courtesy of Emma Johnson