There are certain apps that we use every day that are just fantastic and that I think we take a bit for granted. Google Maps is one of those. It is amazingly useful, works exceedingly well, and just keeps getting better. And, rather quietly, helpful new features are introduced without a lot of fanfare. For example, I’ve noticed that parking information is now integrated into directions in certain cities.
One of the more interesting meetings I had recently while in San Francisco for Mobile World Congress Americas was at the headquarters of Mapbox, a VC-funded company that crafts beautiful maps and provides a location data platform, APIs, and SDKs for developers to build into applications. For example, they provide the weather layers that we’ve all been seeing too much of on the Weather Channel over the past few hurricane-filled weeks. The market for digital mapping services is active and very competitive (even though Google is the behemoth). And there’s been huge growth of mapping APIs over the past couple of years.
This dip into the digital mapping world got me to thinking about a few new features that would be very useful for mapping apps.
- Greater Delineation of Road Surface Type. Especially Dirt Roads. Many people use mapping services to plan out bike routes. I’ve found that in many more rural locations, it is not clear whether a road is paved or dirt. This can spell trouble for bikers, especially if it’s a ‘road bike’ with thinner tires. Plus, it’s hard to determine road surface type using ‘satellite view’. Some of the services do a good job of delineating surface type for trails, such as running or bike paths, but, curiously, not as well for roads.
- Offer A ‘Best Route’. For driving directions, there’s usually an option to ‘avoid highways’. And the mapping services have been steadily incorporating more information about roads that are ‘cycle friendly’ (e. have bike lanes). How about a ‘pleasant’ or ‘scenic route’ option, which would guide the user to more interesting, less traffic-y roads? For pedestrians, this might mean using side roads between two spots that are more enjoyable or interesting for walking. In cities, I could see some cool AI applications, for example for those who like art, designing a walking route that goes by galleries.
- Incorporate Car Pool/HOV Lane Into Traffic Info. This idea came about as a result of a recent experience. It was a Friday afternoon, and I was on 101 South in the San Jose area. Lucky me. The map said it would take 45 minutes to get to my destination (12 miles away). So happens, there were two of us in the car, so we were able to use the car pool lane and get to our destination in 20 minutes instead. The time did adjust once we were in the lane, whizzing by other cars.Incorporating HOV lane information into mapping apps would be very useful. When requiring directions to a location, there could be a setting where the user is asked if there are two or more passengers. Then the app could also help plan the optimal route using HOV lanes, if applicable, and also adjust the time to destination. Or, in the route option, show ‘use HOV’. Even letting the user know that “you saved 10 minutes by carpooling” would be a helpful incentive.
- Greater UI Consistency Between Web and Mobile App. This might be more specific to Google Maps, but I find that there are some major usability differences between Google Maps on the web and on smartphones. For example, it is easier on the Web to obtain directions between two places. And I think the “search nearby” function works more quickly, intuitively, and effectively on the Web. On my PC, if I enter an address, there’s a nearby button with prompts for restaurants, hotels, and so on, or I can enter something in the search box, such as ‘hardware stores’. But the “explore nearby” function, or trying to find out what’s near a particular spot, is much less intuitive or user-friendly on a phone. Funny thing is, it used to be better and easier. There have actually been petitions to bring back “search nearby” function which was on what is now referred to as the “classic’ version of Google Maps.
- Better Tutorials & Help Information. There are many very useful features and settings in Google Maps and other digital mapping applications that I don’t think are well known, or are under-utilized by the average consumer. A search for “how to” usually yields helpful results, but many people don’t have a good idea of what to even look for. I think the digital mapping companies, or even third parties — Google, Apple, and third parties — could develop an improved set of visual tutorials on how to maximize the wonderful capabilities available in their services.