It’s finals week here at Carnegie Mellon, and now more than ever I don’t want to spend unnecessary time digging around for information. I want my notes organized and easy to flip through, I don’t want to have to look at 5 different course portals to find the study guides that my professors put online, and I definitely don’t want to download and read half of an assigned paper only to realize that it doesn’t matter for the test. In fact, these desires sound a lot like the desires of an information consumer in general – I would like my lookup costs to be as small as possible and the fruits of my efforts to be accurate.
Conveniently enough, those are exactly the same goals as any person who designs a web site’s navigation – he or she is trying to pick links, layouts, and labels that will help users quickly find what they are looking for. Topical navigation is well researched and well known, but what about geographic navigation? Maps with dots add value to content, but are they effective at all as a browsing tool? More specifically, are they effective as a news browsing tool?
I’m not sure how others feel, but based on my personal experience and the opinions of friends I’ve talked to I would say that most current geographic interfaces actually make it difficult to browse the news. Of course there are a couple exceptions to this claim, so I’ll get into the details about when I feel geographic navigation is and isn’t useful. After that I’ll go back to the bullet by offering a suggestion that can be applied to any news site.
When maps DO help users browse news
Seeing a bunch of push pins on a map is definitely useful in situations where loosely quantified overviews are informative. For instance when dealing with data where visual patterns and trends add value. One example of this is Adrian Holovaty’s Chicago Crime, but breaking news also fits into this category. Seeing a large number of stories in an area throws a flag saying “something important happened here!”. In both of these cases the maps are useful because they tell a story that doesn’t need a headline – they provide standalone meaning.
To some extent, global news can also be effectively browsed using maps. In this case the physical location is a major factor of the story instead of simply being another tag – “where” is almost as important as “what”. When I see a dot representing a global report hovering over Beijing I know that it is about China and I can make a reasonable judgment as to whether or not I want to click and learn more. This means I can glance at a map and see where things are going on in the world, digging deeper if I want to.
When maps DON’T help users browse news
For every time maps add value to the news exploration process there are a dozen cases where they simply make life frustrating. Here’s why: a map, digital or otherwise, is designed to help find location, but location doesn’t tell you much on its own. Geotagging is so important because it allows people to find things happening in places they care about, but it can’t do the job alone.
I think the problem is the most obvious when looking at maps of local news; So there is a giant blue bubble pointing at the park, what does that mean? The story could be about a robbery, a high school soccer game, the construction of a new playground, the list goes on but unfortunately I can’t learn that information at a glance. What about when there are 25 giant blue bubbles pointing at 25 different nearby locations? That’s when I look at the map, randomly click on one because I have nothing better to do, and quickly realize that I don’t personally need to learn more about the downed power line in Squirrel Hill. I’m sure that there is something in there worth reading, but if it’s going to take me 25 clicks to find it, you can count me out.
If geo-browsing doesn’t work, how can maps help readers find news?
I’ll sum it up in one word: Filtering. For those that don’t know, filtering is a process where a large set of items, say news articles, is whittled down to a smaller more manageable set of items based on well defined aspects. For instance, you could filter by date (I only want to see stories that were written yesterday), or maybe author (I only want to see stories that were written by John Doe). That may not sound too useful, but coordinates open up plenty of fresh opportunities.
Now, instead of making your users look at a bunch of dots on a map, you let them define areas of interest and filter by physical location. Once regions are created, your web site can do the work for them the next time they want to look at geographically defined news. Better yet, the site can now display those articles in a normal, scan-able format.
From here, just add in the ability to save those regions and define more than one (since users care about more than one place and don’t like telling you the same thing twice). If you add this functionality to your site, you create a very nice way of helping your readers get personalized physical news on any scope – meaning this would work for local and global news organizations alike.
There are more steps to be taken that would continue to improve upon the interface, but I think that this alone would really add a lot and could be created without spending an unreasonable amount of money or time.
(This post pertains to a bullet point from Tapping the Potential of Geotagging – Let users to define and save multiple areas of interest)