The Map: Context And Memory

By Daniel O’Neil

As we described in a previous blog post, websites need guides, the friendly voice helping people discover spaces where they can learn, work, and play. They act as a findability strategy for your users to locate things on your site.This post gets into more detail about the oldest of all guides: the map. Maps are most important when your users need to see the broad context of possibilities related to an idea, especially if the user can’t recall what the original idea was. To put it another way, maps are good for narrowing and remembering things.

The Map: Learn And Remember

Salthouse ancient channel map made by Surveyor John Hunt in 1649.

Salthouse ancient channel map made by Surveyor John Hunt in 1649.

Maps teach and inspire. They tell you where you are and where you might be able to go. This depiction of the world also makes assertions about what is important to focus on. They are more than spatial depictions of the world; they are usable tools that make assertions about what is important in context.As a map, your site helps users see the broad context of possibilities related to an idea.

What Makes Maps “Mappy”?

Chicago “L” train line (in French). Wikimedia Commons.

Chicago “L” train line (in French). Wikimedia Commons.

Solving the Three Basic Pulling Problems, from the OTC Specialty Tools Product Catalog

Solving the Three Basic Pulling Problems, from the OTC Specialty Tools Product Catalog

From an information standpoint, a map is a representation of relationships expressed and explained in context.By this reasoning, we are surrounded by excellent maps that aren’t necessarily mappy. In fact, the first really good travel maps didn’t look mappy at all.T

he Roman military created maps that were long, narrow scrolls of 20 feet. They showed a path down Roman roads from city to city. The map depicted distances of thousands of miles, all spooling along these roads. It told a story about a world where Rome was the anchor of any journey across the empire, and the roads were the connective tissue that held the empire together.

The approach clearly resonates in the map finding nature of our world, because in the 20th century it was replicated, in almost exact design, in the AAA TripTik, a multi-page road map that showed your journey from point to point in a series of 80-mile long tiles.

Another pathfinding map archetype is almost any major light rail commuter map. Note that this map of Chicago's light rail system is rotated 90 degrees from the actual orientation in order to more cleanly show the line stops and make room for the map’s annotation.

But maps aren’t always implicitly spatial. One of my favorite maps is of Pullers, a kind of heavy duty wrench used in manufacturing and auto repair shops. This map shows the relationships in context, annotates their use, and prioritizes their selection. It’s not spatial at all, but as a map of use, it is profoundly helpful.

Are Maps Right For You?

Guide Selection Strategies

Guide Selection Strategies

StubHub’s ticket selection interface. Note that when you roll over any given section, a view of the floor is available as well as the price range and remaining tickets. Annotation in the main map is minimal but is available in a legend to the left of the diagram.

StubHub’s ticket selection interface. Note that when you roll over any given section, a view of the floor is available as well as the price range and remaining tickets. Annotation in the main map is minimal but is available in a legend to the left of the diagram.

So where do maps help us in the online world? They are less common than other guide strategies, but are important in high-complexity, low-knowledge contexts.

There are 3 places where maps work wonderfully: calendars, filtered search menus, like those on a search result page in Amazon, and planning websites.

StubHub.com, for example, is an excellent planning website, with a remarkable map for purchasing tickets. It is the quintessential map: functional, representational, and ably displays information in context.

Beyond those 3 archetypes, there aren’t many explicit maps in the modern internet. This reflects a broader information pattern, which is that most online strategies assume that the assembly of understanding and context happens AFTER things are found.

To put it another way, the internet assumes you are going to start at some level of understanding and then go deeper into the thing you are trying to learn about. Maps then will be the focus at the end of a journey, not as a way to reach it.

Whether or not this should actually be how we manage or process information is, to me, one of the biggest questions about the future of knowledge in the modern world.In the meantime, take a look at your own digital footprint. When would you need maps? Are they necessary to help people make a journey? If so, what would yours look like?