The Role of UX and UI in GIS

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The nature of GIS is heavily intertwined with the world of design. Maps themselves are a user interface, and a user experience, serving as a visual tool to communicate and provide insight on a specific region and subject. Jeff Siarto of Element 84 discusses with the MapScaping Podcast how design is present and changing in the geospatial industry.

In the early days of the internet, web pages were clunky HTML, with occasional pops of CSS. As the industry and technology matured, graphic designers took to cyberspace and brought us the well-dressed digital landscape we see today. Has GIS, however, been left behind? Companies like Element 84, Google, and Mapbox are making a conscious effort to bring the geospatial industry up to speed in the world of design, by imparting conscious design on how we view the world.  

Most people are familiar with the standard web map user interface, a map frame, a pane to toggle layers, often doubling as a legend, and maybe a few widgets scattered around the periphery. This format has been reused time and time again, but this does not mean it is necessarily the best option for every scenario. 

A screenshot from the Google Earth web map interface that shows a heart-shaped lake from a satellite image.
A common mapping application user interface, Google Earth.

The ideal user interface should further the mission of providing a great user experience. Where a user interface is what the user is actually interacting with, the user experience is everything about how the user completes the relevant workflow while in a provider’s digital domain. This includes the map’s user interface, but also the nesting of pages and buttons that got them there, the larger website design, and any interactions with salespeople (or chatbots!). 

A key aspect to designing an experience for a GIS application is having an understanding of the audience. Who will be using the map, and what will they be using it for? Planning to predict and meet the needs of your niche provides a superior user experience with a higher chance of creating a returning customer. 

Reducing the Time to Science

First of all, what is the time to science? Well, it is the amount of time that a particular scientist or researcher will spend getting to the answer of the question they initially posed. Reducing the time to science means improving the efficiency of supporting workflows for whatever the study is. Doing this allows scientists to spend more time doing science, and less time preparing data, or other lower level tasks. 

One part of this is cleaning, refining, and organizing data before it ever gets in front of the user. Although this is historically one of the more frustrating stages of data manipulation, a lot of the real time savings comes from removing the need to retrieve data.

The huge datasets of the future (and present) are most efficiently accessed through technology like Cloud Optimized GeoTIFFS (COGs), and APIs. By parsing and only streaming the packets needed by the end user, data can be accessed far more quickly than if a several hundred gigabyte file needed to be queued. The time savings are even higher, and the user experience even better, if researchers have access to the highest speed internet and hardware available. 

Element84 certainly helps their clients with implementing the best practices above, but a large part of improving the user experience for scientists is reducing the amount of coding they are responsible for. This may mean developers build on top of existing code, applications, and solutions to save valuable time that can be spent on higher level tasks, design, and workflow optimization. Creating infrastructure for low-code and no-code workflows allows researchers to focus their time on what matters most- the science. 

What’s Next in the GIS User Experience?

In an industry dense with creators and innovators, it is no surprise that unlocking potential is on the forefront of everyone’s mind. We have seen individual steps forward, but no one has truly upset the status quo for user interfaces for GIS portals and applications. Similarly, we have not seen true standardization of the geospatial user experience. This indicates that there is not yet a truly winning combination in this space. As designers continue to slowly shift their eye towards the spatial, expect this to change. 

We are going to need to move into a direction where we are building interfaces that are answering specific questions as opposed to just building interfaces that return all the products for a specified region. Connecting users more directly with the resources that match their needs vastly improves their experience, and increases the chance they will return next time they need something. This could mean incorporating artificial intelligence, spatial voice queries, and even rethinking how we process and structure queries to begin with. 

Another likely industry shift is one that has already begun- massive online open data sets. Some current examples are AWS public data sets, and Microsoft’s Planetary Computer. There has been an overabundance of raw data being created in recent years. As the data processing bottleneck clears up, finished products will work their way into these massive hosted data catalogs. This is part of the reason why it will be important to change how we organize and query data.

Additionally, as sensor resolutions and technology improve, and more and more satellites enter orbit to contribute to our wealth of geospatial knowledge, the specific source of our data will become less and less important. When multiple providers are able to offer the same thing, the focus will shift to data access and procurement. The continued evolution of each player in the geospatial data pipeline allows the next new challenges and opportunities for innovation. As the partnership between geospatial and design continues to unfold, networking and an openness to try new ways of doing things has become more valuable than ever. 

Read next: You Are Here: How Google Improves Mobile Location Accuracy

About the Author

Taren Woelk began her writing career with the Mapscaping Podcast in June of 2021. She has embraced the opportunity to explore all that the GIS industry has to offer, and holds special interest in writing about UAV, photogrammetry, and artificial intelligence technologies. When she is not working to demystify everything geospatial, you can find her rock climbing, reading, or flying her drone down by the river. 

Want to get in touch? Find Taren Woelk on LinkedIn

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