On Maps and Ecommerce

by on May 3, 2009

I remember an English teacher asking us what, in our opinion, was the most useless thing we would have to learn at school. I replied that I thought it was the capital cities of the world. What possible advantage could you have over anything with the knowledge that the capital of Peru is Lima?  I was somewhat surprised that he agreed with me – although I later found it would be a trick question. He was making the point that education itself is useless – something about Milton. But that’s another story.

When I consider the use of maps in ecommerce, there is a distant echo of my frustration with having to learn seemingly useless knowledge. This is particularly relevant because I have to think about maps when considering designs as part of the business of selling hotels.

Maps belong to that category of very recognisable things you see on the web, but their use seems shrouded in an irrational belief that because they are “visual”, they must somehow be automatically good at explaining things. In this respect they are similar to tag clouds: got a lot of “key words”? Dude – you need a tag cloud! Need to show some geographically-related things? Fire up the Google Maps API!

But like tag clouds, pie charts, and other things that seem to be obvious solutions to information visualisation, their use is often ill-considered. It’s easy to get them into a state where it’s completely unclear what their value is to an interactive experience. Take this hotel booking site for instance.  What, informationally, does this view of the available hotels in London convey that is so important as to override almost all other considerations? Leaving aside the fact that people who have intimate knowledge of the streets of London are unlikely to be the same people as those who book hotels in that city, it would seem to me that a simple list would be better. Sort or filter by price, proximity to city centre, or other criteria. Why is geography presented as so important, when in reality it’s simply one of several factors in choosing a hotel. I’ve no doubt it tested well though – who can’t like a pretty map?

Here’s my opinion: on the web, maps are best for providing reassurance and supplementary information about things in the form of overlays (cash machines, parking, etc.) and at-a-glance information about proximity of arbitrary landmarks (rivers, coasts, famous buildings, parks etc.). They shouldn’t be allowed to get in the way of more important considerations. Look at the site I linked to – can you be sure you’ve seen all the hotels within your budget?

Comments

Learning capitals was very important at one of my junior schools – I loved it. Those that knew the answers got to go to lunch earlier …

When I choose a hotel in a place I am visiting, the *first* thing I want to see is where it sits on a map. It is one of my primary decision making factors. If I don’t know the city well enough, chances are I’ll do a little reading around to find out what area is what, and reference that to the map.

I guess my thought order is i) cost (intuitive) ii) are the rooms clean / well kept / can you eat your breakfast off the floor? iii) will it be quiet? iv) is it somewhere vaguely near where I want to go – there is always public transport / taxis – so of course while I need to know at some point where it is certainly ain’t the first thing. I mean most European cities aren’t THAT big.

The trouble with putting geography first in choosing a hotel is that it relies upon your knowledge of the destination, and that knowledge may be flawed (or indeed not very relevant as Dr Kopistropi points out). Besides, if you see a hotel on a map opposite some museum you want to visit, are you going to just book it without investigating whether it’s a roach motel with a minus zero customer rating?

I think the evidence here suggests different people have different searching criteria. To imply that one of them is fundamentally wrong is, IMHO, somewhat arrogant.

Yes, my approach may be flawed, but it has always stood me in good stead. No, I do not ignore other criteria – as I said, it is “one of” my primary decision making factors, not the only one.

When I talk about location, I don’t mean ‘is it near my favourite museum’. Much more than that. Is it near a main square, are there bars within walking distance, is there eg. a metro, is it a quiet street or a main road, etc, etc – the sort of information that can quickly be gleaned from a map and not from a (‘100 yards from so-and-so).

I’m just saying – this is how I look for hotels. I am well aware that different people have different approaches (and different needs). Personally, when visitng a place, I prefer to avoid public transport/taxis as much as is humanly possible (with my legs, many things are humanly possible), so the Dr Kopistropi approach isn’t good for me.

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