On Maps and Ecommerce

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?