DogBlessA large majority of the interactive GIS web maps published online today are unusable to the general public. Don’t get me wrong, as a GIS user there are some really great, feature rich and informative sites that serve their purpose as well as their audience. But for the non-GIS user, the sites that are specifically designed just for them are practically useless (meaning the user leaves without accomplishing the intended task). These sites are either trying to do way too much in one published map or the architect is losing focus on what the site is there to do in the first place. As someone who builds and designs interactive mapping sites for local governments, I have had countless conversations with non-GIS users (realtors, developers, homeowners, etc.) trying to figure out what they want most out of an online mapping application. Here’s what I’ve learned: these users wants to obtain geospatial and non-geospatial information, they want it fast, and they don’t want to learn GIS software or obtain GIS skills to get it. They also want some kind of beginning point when they arrive to the web map such as a search button. This should be the most prevalent tool on the interface for the public user. We should keep in mind that when we throw a map out on the web for the public, with tons of GIS information displayed, it can sometimes be overwhelming. If there is no visible starting point to the GIS madness, the public user easily becomes intimidated and deems the site “unusable.”

Here are a few things that we have focused on when designing a “public” GIS mapping site.

  1. Make it Simple -The user should be able to operate the site within the first 30-60 seconds after arriving. We have noticed on our sites the average user time is around 8 minutes top. This means the users are getting on, getting what they need and leaving. If you need a site that does more intensive GIS functions for your GIS users, create a different site for them.
  2. Don’t Make Me Think – Design the site to do as much for the users without additional user interactions – A property mapping site we created for Sumner County, TN is a great example of this. Here we decided to give the user as much information as the GIS can give based on a selected parcel. With one mouse click the site delivers the property attributes then does geo-processing which returns additional spatially generated attributes like school district, zoning, census block, flood map, traffic analysis zone, etc. as it is related to that selected parcel. The user does not have to turn on and off individual GIS layers and visually compare each one just to find the answer, although they are still able to do this if they desire. This way, we give the user all the answers they can get from the site in one click and leave it up to the extent of their GIS knowledge to do visual comparisons, etc. with the map.
  3. Have a visual starting point – This can be anything that says something like “Search”, “Step 1″, something. I have noticed when people first discover these sites they become overwhelmed but are still very excited about discovering the site. I believe the users immediately see the potential of the site but most sites fail to deliver quickly by losing the users interest with no easy method to dig in. For example, if it is a parcel mapping site, then “Search Parcel” should be easily found.
  4. Don’t try to do too much – With the property mapping example above, a user can determine quickly that it is a parcel mapping site. Meaning everything on the map and all the geo-processing performed is based on how other GIS information is related to a specific parcel. There really is no need to publish every piece of information within your GIS. If there is additional information that is not specifically related to a parcel then create another service or site to perform that function. This expands on item 3 above by giving the user a choice of which map to choose based on what information they are looking to retrieve. I have found that trying to create a site that answers every question possible is not as effective as having several sites that answer specific questions.

All that said, the GIS community should be commended for pushing for more and better ways of getting the information into the hands of the masses. We just feel that it should be powerful and simple, all at the same time.