Book Review: “Interacting with Geospatial Technologies” by Muki Haklay

September 15, 2010

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I like to divide technology books into two groups: those that tell you what to do and how to do it, and those that present the background with just a nod to suggested "best practices." Muki Haklay's "Interacting with Geospatial Technologies" falls squarely into the second group. That should not keep people interested in the former from reading it. In fact, it's my sense that few of us in geospatial technology spend enough time on either the practical implementations or research related to the human computer interface (HCI) of the geospatial products we build and use.

The book begins with a section titled Theory that introduces both geospatial technologies (including cartography, analysis and history) and HCI so that those coming from a background in both, either or neither can get up to speed on the basics. There are interesting tidbits in those early chapters including a suggestion that geocaching has grown due to the availability of low cost consumer GPS devices.

The next section, titled Framework, offers the basics of user-centered design and usability engineering. A case study from the user-centered design chapter features the San Jose police department as it tried to implement a new dispatch system. The narrative is quite valuable, if sadly familiar. "Managers" were involved in selecting and guiding the new system; users were only brought in to the discussion at the end of the process. In short, the interface was not made a priority.

The heart of the book and the section where most pages will likely get dog-eared is on Practicalities and Technique. It comes the closest to providing best practices related to geospatial software interface design. Still, the book's aim is far broader than just offering such practices; it aims to provide principles and frameworks. So, for example, don't expect direction on selecting symbols or colors, but rather expect to learn about the role of each in mapmaking. There are, indeed, a few "best practices" lists but they are not the meat of the text. Chapter 8 offers "general tips about the influence of colour scheme in map use, collated from the key texts." Chapter 9 includes "some guidelines for designing a GIS interface" including consistency, feedback, prevent errors, backing out of errors, user in control. While these most certainly apply to GIS, they are generic software interface principles detailed in many articles and books. I have my graduate students read about these principles in this article, then identify their use (or lack thereof!) in Web mapping applications.

Chapter 10, on Evaluation and Deployment, will also be valuable to those looking to improve their geospatial software offerings. The good news is that even the smallest organizations with the most limited budgets can do some sort of evaluation to improve their product interfaces. While a full-blown study may not be possible, a few interviews with users of different abilities can yield valuable insights to make apps easier to use.

The final chapter is dedicated to Web mapping application "design guidelines." The speed of change is apparent. I'd think the last chapter, if the book was written today, would address interface issues for mapping on mobile devices!

I have but two quibbles with the book. One is the graphics. There are far too few images of different interfaces to illustrate the principles discussed. While this book is aimed more at theory, providing a few more examples to connect the abstract ideas to familiar and unfamiliar user interfaces would be most enlightening. Too few students, users and developers focus on just one or two interfaces in their work, losing the opportunity to explore how others solve similar challenges. Some of the images seem gratuitous: two women standing with a paper map and pointing (p. 29), for example. My other concern is sloppy copy editing. Errors such as "Map Quest," (p. 260) and the appearance of the text " was discussed in Chapter 8" in Chapter 6 are disappointing in a book from Wiley.

This is a solid book that pulls together the research in what hopefully will be a growing area of study for the GIS community. I was pleased to see so many of the names and findings that are guiding research and implementation in this area. I look forward to an updated edition with more examples, more graphics of user interfaces and a chapter on issues related to interface design for mapping and GIS apps on mobile devices.


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