Oh no, what happened to Google Maps???

The New Google Maps

I just updated my Android maps app to the latest version – only to be forced to look closer at Google Maps’ design updates. And I must say I don’t like them at all!!! But first the positives:

It makes sense to maximize the map’s screen real estate. It didn’t in the past make any sense to fill the screen with white and grey boxes instead of a map. Also, the new functionality is very good with most of it being hidden in the single search box on top.

Now for the critique. As you will see, this has nothing to do with the UI but rather with the map design itself. Take the image above as an example…

  • First Apple Maps and now Google Maps try to simplify the map layout. As you can see above, building outlines are very faint and although this is the middle of town, information display is rather sparse. Furthermore, features appear and disappear based on the zoom level. While in principle this is good, it is imperative that a usable map has a good amount of information density. After all, I am using a map to find my way around a 3D world that has varying building heights, vegetation, shops etc. For example, if I stand in the middle of this map and look around I can see lots of businesses that the map doesn’t show me. I therefore have to believe I am in the wrong place.
  • As you can see in the image above, the flat parking lot and the four story buildings look exactly the same on the map (only some buildings are faintly differentiated). Therefore I can’t use the third dimension to navigate.
  • In the previous map version, major roads (like Amity St above) were colored yellow. This has been replaced by a width-based logic. While this may work on the desktop, it renders the map unusable on small screens in bad light.
  • While putting place iconography into circles might make some designers happy (and smoothes things out), it removes the possibility for quick, shape-based feature recognition. Color alone can’t be used as a differentiator because of varying color-perception.

I strongly hope Google Maps will at least offer a settings switch between the two designs (old and new) in the future. It might also make sense to expand this to various rendering options (e.g. add high-contrast). I also hope Google realizes that when it comes to a navigation tool, the lowest common denominator is not necessarily good for guiding design – it hasn’t worked for Apple so far and it won’t work for them.