It is not a coincidence that most mobile destination websites and travel and tourism apps offer maps and location-based services in one form or another. A large amount of searches on mobile occur with a local intent. Most urban residents, as well as tourists and visitors to unfamiliar destinations consider maps and location-based services the most important features of smartphone devices.
We have used maps for hundreds of years because, to date, they remain one of the most suitable means to communicate information about space.
If designed correctly, a map captures tons of information which would be difficult to communicate through text or images alone.
The release of sophisticated mobile devices, equipped with powerful positioning sensors, such as GPS, accelerometer and magnetometer, allows to locate users and provide them with information immediately relevant to their surroundings.
Today, delivering spatial content is even easier, as each of the three major smartphone platform providers have their own mapping solution: MapKit (Apple), Google Maps (Android), and Here Maps (Windows Phone). In addition, HTML5 supports platform specific delivery of location-based information. This means that websites can be built to use the sensors of a smartphone device to determine its position, altitude, direction of travel and orientation.
In addition, smartphones have become so powerful that it is now possible to implement immersive three-dimensional maps, virtual reality environments, or Augmented Reality apps on such tiny devices.
Augmented Reality (AR) browsers are a very interesting and special type of location-based service. An AR browser delivers information in virtual bubbles (annotations) about points of interests, locations and objects. This virtual information is overlaid on top of the real-world front-camera view of the user, simulating an enhanced (augmented) view of the real world.
Currently, there are more than 500 AR apps on the smartphone market and their number is growing fast. The total AR applications market is expected to reach 5157.74 million by 2016. Trigg-ar (2013) reports that 30% of mobile users in mature markets will use AR at least once a week in 2014. As interest grows, the company predicts that there will be 2.5 billion mobile AR app downloads by 2017.
While the market is still fragmented, progress is swift. Recently, the three biggest companies that provide location-based AR apps, Layar, Metaio and Wikitude, announced that they will enable interoperability among the three platforms. This is good news, as it means that publishers of AR content can now reach a much wider audience.
However, providing maps and location-based information is not trivial and many things can go wrong. A badly designed map, Augmented Reality app or location-based service might mislead, annoy and confuse users, rather than help them achieve their goals. This is very important, as delivering location-based services, immersive 3D maps or Augmented Reality on mobile devices can be very costly and time consuming.
This is why we have dedicated the third blog post from out “Going Mobile in 5 Weeks” series to the design of mobile maps, location-based services and Augmented Reality for travel and tourism.
Once you go through the article you can also DOWNLOAD OUR REFERENCE CARDS. The reference cards provide a 5 minutes checklist which will help you investigate and improve the content on your mobile website.
There are a number of guidelines and principles that apply to mobile maps and location-based services. Consider the products that you have or planning to release. Do they comply with the following guidelines?
Provide downloadable content
There is a huge difference between static and interactive maps. The content of a static map cannot be changed by the user and is often published on mobile websites and apps as a PDF document. The main advantage of static maps is that users can download them and use them offline.
An excellent example is provided on VisitSweden’s website. Users can download a PDF map which, while static, has high resolution, loads quickly and provides a good overview of the country.
Many new mobile apps, such as Pocket Guide, allow users to download content (including maps) to their mobile devices.
Use the power of interactive maps
There are a number of different types of interactivity which can be provided on mobile maps.
Consider for a second the list of destinations provided on the official tourism website of the Bahamas. The list is clearly readable, but there are so many destinations that it might be difficult to tap and preview information for all of them and users have to go back and forth to go through all of the content.
In comparison, on MySwitzerland’s website users can jump to pages for specific regions using the map provided on the regions page. Notice that the website provides an overview of the locations in both map and list view. This is really useful, as it allows tourists to quickly scan the list, but also see where regions (or points of interest) are located in space, which ones are close together and how far are they from each other.
When it comes to interactive mobile maps, a really good best practice is to allow users to navigate to additional content by making the symbols on the map tappable. A really good example is provided on Ireland’s website. When tapped, the symbols on the map expand in an annotation which provides more information about the selected POI, and a hyperlink to additional content.
Maps are created with a specific purpose for a specific type of audience. The travel and tourism industry, however, often faces the challenge that users are widely different and require different types of information.
Before maps became digital, there was no practical way to allow users to alter the information presented on maps. Today, companies and organisations can provide users with custom-made thematic maps, allowing them to change the content which displays on the screen (on-demand maps). This functionality is especially useful considering the wide range of users and information needs that a website or an app has to satisfy.
An excellent example of providing users with options to change the content delivered on maps is provided on a number of travel related websites and apps. For instance, the website of Bermuda provides users with options to select the thematic information (e.g. lodging, dining) they are interested to see on the map.
Deliver tappable and easy to understand symbols
Cartographers follow many principles when creating maps and designing symbols. One of the most important ones is to make the map legible (easy to read and understand). This principle applies to both the map base (e.g. how streets, regions, buildings are displayed), but is also important when it comes to interactive symbols displayed over the base (e.g. points of interests, museums, attractions, food venues).
It is essential to make symbols on a map easy to spot and understand. More complex symbols are not only difficult to recognise, but will take more space to display and this is why they might be unsuitable for the mobile screen.
A best practice is to select symbols that are familiar to users. Consider the map symbols used in the older version of the Augmented Reality app junaio. The map displays information about available Wikipedia articles in central London. The symbols are difficult to understand and might be misleading as they are different form Wikipedia’s official logo.
There are a number of best practice examples for delivering useful and usable content on maps, and the Roadtrippers app is just one of them. The symbols on the map are easy to understand as they follow international conventions. In addition, because of their different colours, it is easy to quickly locate and estimate the density of different types of points of interests.
The amount of symbols is also very important. Too many symbols will clutter the display and make the map very difficult to read. In addition, because the symbols overlap, it is very difficult for users to estimate their number or tap individual ones for more information. The screen shot from Expedia illustrates the problem.
A way forward is to group symbols and display only the resulting number. A good example how this can be achieved is featured on Slovakia’s mobile website. The map groups nearby symbols and displays only their number on the map. The resulting new symbols (circles) are coloured differently, according to the amount of items. The new symbols are also tappable and can be used to automatically zoom the map over a smaller territory.
Consider “smart defaults” for location-based maps
Location-based services provide information about the immediate surroundings of the user. This feature is very useful both on mobile apps and mobile websites (e.g. check Estonia’s official tourism website).
Because it is difficult to pan and zoom a large map on a small screen, a best practice guideline is to automatically zoom the map over the current position of the user or the point of interest he/she is interested in.
Orienting the map in the direction they are facing is also extremely important. Otherwise it might be difficult for users to relate the content of the map and the physical features around them. This is why often mobile users rotate the device if the map is not oriented in the direction they are facing.
Be careful with cutting-edge features, such as 3D maps and Augmented Reality
Three-dimensional maps, as well as Augmented Reality are two ways to present information to mobile users which have huge potential.
Three-dimensional maps can provide a good overview of a larger territory. 3D maps are not so abstracted as 2D maps. This is why they are extremely useful for navigation, because users can identify individual buildings and landmarks faster. However, often they are quite big and might also be annoying if they take too much time to load. In this case, simulating a 3D view through panorama images might be a better solution. Check out the mobile app Shard View for an excellent example of a simulated 3D experience.
Even if loading time is solved, 3D maps might be extremely difficult to work with and result in disorientation. It seems that Recce have solved many of these problems, as the app provides an overall positive and unique experience.
Augmented Reality browsers have a huge potential for tourism. In the ideal scenario the user needs to only lift up their mobile device to get relevant information about an object or a point of interest. Finding information like this about the surroundings can be achieved in a matter of seconds.
Smartphone Augmented Reality apps are not mature enough (yet) and there are many problems to solve, including the imprecise alignment of virtual information and physical features. Another problem is deciding what information to deliver about POIs and how to present it to users. Consider the information delivered by the AR app Augmented Reality UK. The virtual bubbles display a camera icon, together with distance information. The lack of name, description or any other additional pieces of content make the AR view useless for a tourist, who is unfamiliar with the destination.
A good example of delivering useful content is the AR view in the smartphone app Yelp. Each virtual bubble provides useful information, such as the name of the POI, ranking, number of reviews, a keyword (category), price range and distance.
There are a number of other standards and guidelines to consider when delivering 2D and 3D mobile maps, location-based services or Augmented Reality to users.
If you are not sure whether your mobile products perform well or need advice, contact us. Our experts are always happy to help.
Watch out for our Mobile Benchmark to see how destinations have made use of maps and other cutting edge features and how they rank among competitors.
You can also order our Mobile Expert Evaluation to receive thorough and detailed feedback, insights and recommendations about any aspect of your mobile products, including mobile maps, location-based features or AR.
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