I love Google Maps. It is leading the way on how we use and interact with an online map, and it is doing an amazing job. The promise is actually quite simple but the technology behind it is astonishing. The device you use Google Maps on is actually locating your position constantly using a method called “Trilateration” and it is listening for a signal from the satellites that circle around the earth. The most well known is GPS but modern day devices use also GLONASS and some other navigation systems. Once the receiver calculates its distance from four or more satellites from these systems (there are more than 50!), it knows exactly where you are. From 20.000 km. up in space your location on the ground can be determined with incredible precision and it appears as a blue dot on your screen. This is the core technology of how it finds you on the map.
This blue dot is amazing in itself but it also lets us interact with it and it is very good at it too. In fact, it may be the most well designed digital experience in the world right now. I like how easy it is to use and how it has become an essential tool in our lives. It is on multiple platforms such as web, mobile, tablet, navigation devices etc. and it is almost invisible, waiting to help when needed, and it helps! The technology behind the scenes to make multiple components that make up the Maps experience work smooth is amazing, including satellite photography, street view, real time traffic data, being able to contribute to Google Maps with your own pictures etc.
Google is keeping it always fresh with newly added features and UI. Each of these components (most of the time) work in harmony whilst keeping the content as the hero. If you tap the screen on mobile app version, all the UI disappears and it shows only the map. There is no clutter, no unnecessary buttons, nothing in between you and your information. Another tap and the buttons are back there, visible again if you need, and help you find your way, show the route, navigate you there by walking, cycling, driving or using public transport.
If you have limited access or don’t want to pay a fortune to roaming on your travels, you can even download the map of an area in advance so it doesn’t have to be online all the time. Sounds good so far but not all is perfect. The most commonly used feature is obviously the search and Google is insisting to keep it at the top. If I could change one thing on the app, I would change the screen on the left to the right one:
Let me explain why:
Search bar at the bottom of the screen, not at the top: This may seem obvious when you consider the thumb zone but Google still insists on placing the search to the top. Do they know something we don’t based on research? After all, they are the ones who put the search bar at the bottom on their latest Android OS!
We usually start searching our destination, find it, navigate to it and then explore it, so the easy to interact with thing here should be search.
Relocating the explore icon: As we are dismissing the bottom navigation menu and put search there, we can use our second fab (first one is find me button) as the explore button. (Material design recommends using one fab but permits two at the same time with caution)
The awful explore icon: Speaking of the explore feature, does the pin mean explore? It looks like, well, more like a pin. Interestingly, the previous icon for this feature was spot on; an eight point star, like you would see on a compass. I am curious about the main decision to change it but as a user I miss the old one as a pin means, a pin on a map or a point of interest, not explore.
Relocating the layers icon back to navigation drawer: This is not a feature that is used very often. The previous location of it made more sense back in the navigation drawer and since we are using our second fab as the explore, we should hide it in where it belongs. In terms of efficiency, hiding it doesn’t change the number of taps to change the view of maps, it is just hidden so the main UI is decluttered.
I know design never ends, it can always be improved and these are some recommendations to enhance the UX and UI for an app I love. The future updates will probably address some of these comments and continue improve the way we interact with this amazing app, I just hope these will be fixed sooner rather than later.