Student profile: Craig Allison
There has been a dramatic increase in both the quantity and variety of available online mapping applications (Haklay, 2010) Maps allow data to be displayed via an overview of contextualised information providing a visualisation of emergent patterns and trends. For example, how many crimes (information) have been committed in a certain area (context). Maps offer the user an abstract version of reality, wherein variables and regions can be compared (Haklay, 2010), users can more easily see emergent spatial trends than should information be displayed within a spread sheet. The growth of the web has revolutionised the use of maps, by offering easily accessible visualised data to users that otherwise would not have access to, or the skills to fully utilise this information. The increased levels of information can however act to confuse users who appear to struggle to integrate the multiple layers of data within the same map. This confusion results in fragmented understanding and disorientation within the environment. There is currently a general lack of research into the ways in which users are interacting with web based dynamic maps. The aim of the proposed thesis is to investigate user actions and map symbolisation on user disorientation when using dynamic web based maps. This thesis will also address issues regarding the influence of the chosen mapping symbolisation on users’ ability to understand the displayed information and factors which may act to improve or alternatively limit the understanding gained from the interactions.
During a pilot study, it was consistently found that displays which relied on an extensive state switch between multiple layers disoriented users. This disorientation occurred despite the underlying map remaining visible at all times, it is unclear therefore why such effects occurred. One of the more common designs for web based mapping applications, sometimes referred to as point maps, found at www.police.uk/data was used in the study. Issues participants raised focused on the dynamic display of data, wherein points actively appeared to disperse, aggregate and alter as a direct consequence of users’ use of zoom controls. Users found such apparent migration difficult to understand, and would easily become disorientated and quickly become lost. Potential further research will therefore examine the influence of visible landmarks on users’ ability to orient themselves within the environment, and examine whether individuals are able to deploy taxon or local learning strategies (O’Keefe & Nadel, 1978) to aid their interactions. Additional issues focused on the impact of point migration on the true location of an event. Users would frequently make erroneous judgments of the location of an event based on high level displays rather than fully exploring the underlying available data. By not exploring all levels of the map, users are losing out on considerable quantity of information. This would suggest that users do not understand how to fully use the map display or the relative importance of individual points.
The next stage within this research proposal is examining whether the findings from this research study can be generalised to wider populations, for example to alternative participant samples, including those lacking experience using web based resources and specifically lacking experience using web based mapping applications. There has also been evidence that experience has a direct impact on individual’s ability to successfully use paper based map displays (Uttal, 2000). Research has identified that female users frequently perform worse in spatial tasks (Brown & Broadway, 1981, Mathews, 1987), however there is currently insufficient evidence to suggest whether this trend continues within the use of dynamic displays. There has not been sufficient examination of how real world experience, experience using the web in general, exposure to traditional map displays and additional factors such as gender impact on individuals’ use of dynamic web based map displays. Potential impacts include latency of completing set tasks within interactive displays, maintenance of orientation and level of understanding gained from using the displays.
The pilot study relied on the collection of detailed qualitative data, using a verbal protocol analysis; this must be expanded to use more quantitative research techniques required in order to deal with larger populations. Comparative work examining the role of experience in ability, task approach and relative level of anxiety experienced when interacting with map based programmes would allow for the development of a clearer understanding of desirable characteristics which web based maps should exhibit to be more accessible and usable to all users rather than just those possessing a specific skill set. Muehrcke (1978) and Lawton (1994) argue that level of anxiety within spatial tasks partially explains why males, who generally experience less anxiety, perform better in spatial paradigms. It is possible that feeling of anxiety also magnifies negative reactions to aforementioned feelings of disorientation which users may experience. Whereas confident individuals are able to recover and reorient in response to such stressors, anxious individuals may panic, give up or simply stop using a service.
The issue of disorientation is key to many areas of the web where a user is asked to move between different levels of an environment, such as within a web page or a web delivered virtual environment. The programme of research will look at alternative map and web information display methodologies to examine which is best for users understanding and maintenance of orientation. Interactive web based maps offer users considerable enriched experiences to interacting with data than ever previously possible. Yet added levels of controls, including pan and zoom, directly impact on users’ ability to understand the data that they are manipulating. Investigating the influence of orientation and the impact of immediate state switch between views will provide potential sources of insight regarding areas which users are currently struggling with. This programme of research aims to use a variety of methodologies to address the issues raised including the use of both qualitative and quantitative methodologies, including questionnaire and experimental studies. The programme of research also aims to investigate a variety of populations, ranging from novice to expert to examine the role experience may have in the use of such displays. The rapid deployment of dynamic web based maps and the growth of free to use services such as Google earth and Google maps have radically readdressed the balance of who interacts with spatial data. Research into how users are actively deploying the available technology is therefore both warranted and timely.
Haklay, M. (2010) Interacting with Geospatial Technologies, Wiley-Blackwell
O’Keefe, J., & Nadel, L. (1978). The hippocampus as a cognitive map. New York: Oxford University Press.
Uttal, D. (2000). Seeing the big picture: map use and the development of spatial cognition. Developmental Science, 3(3), 247-286.
Brown, M., & Broadway, M. (1981). The cognitive maps of adolescents: confusion about inter-town distances. The Professional Geographer 33, 315-325.
Matthews, M. H. (1987) Gender, home range and environmental cognition. Transactions Institute British Geographers, 12, (1) 43-56
Muehrcke, P. (1978) Map Use: reading analysis and interpretation. Madison, WI: J.P Publications
Lawton, C. A. (1994) Gender differences in way-finding strategies – relationship to spatial ability and spatial anxiety. Sex Roles 30, 765 – 779.