Some companies and products seem so dominant, it’s hard to imagine them ever losing their place at the head of the market. But whether it’s a failure to innovate in line with customer demands (think Nokia mobile phones), or a reputational crisis (The Weinstein Company, anyone?), time has taught us that no one is safe from consumer opinions. Not even a giant like Google.
This year Google Maps is rolling out ‘immersive view’, in London, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Tokyo, Amsterdam, Dublin, Florence and Venice. Immersive view blends billions of Street View and aerial images to digitally model the world. Using an advanced AI technique called neural radiance fields or NeRF, they can transform everyday pictures into lifelike 3D.
Too many startups think more is better and end up catching a bad case of the “Featuritis”…Beware startupreneurs! pic.twitter.com/WxcxF4RdZs— Jake Filloramo (@JakeFilloramo) December 8, 2015
So, you can walk into a bookshop or a café and almost feel the textures and warmth of the lights. Fantastic. But is this what map users want? The socials and online forums like Reddit are awash with people complaining about the increasing uselessness of Google Maps. Some might argue the company has a bad case of ‘featuritis’ – a phenomenon where manufacturers continue to add features to a product no matter how superfluous they are to users’ needs.
While Google gazes off in the direction of AI, today’s product presents a number of basic usability issues. Some are to do with connectivity and which version is supported by your device. An update last year introduced critical, and potentially dangerous, bugs for Android and Android Auto, causing Autoevolution to report that “Google Maps loses the GPS tracking in the middle of the drive, at which point the configured navigation becomes a huge mess.”
Other gremlins include zoom levels behaving strangely, meaning users cannot see street names easily and are forced to zoom in and out repeatedly to find the information they are looking for. In addition, the contrast between different types of surroundings, such as forests and fields, is misleading or non-existent.
Sometimes Google Maps represents entire streets at the wrong size. Boulevard Anspach in the centre of Brussels is a good example. It’s a wide north–south axis and landmark road in the European capital. Bizarrely it is completely invisible at some zoom levels because it has been pedestrianised . . . and therefore deprioritised.
Are all these issues just passing hiccups, or are they in fact problematic strategic choices made by a company who is misinterpreting what map users still expect?
I spoke to Tom Wellings, Principal Designer at Huemen, part of Harman International, one of the world’s largest automotive infotainment system suppliers, who explains: “The problems users are facing are symptomatic of a bigger decision by Google. That decision is to minimise contextual information and geographical features, parks, road names and so on. They have prioritised businesses and routing between them. They’ve decided it’s a “transit map” and not a map. The stuff humans find useful on maps to be able to understand their environment and take cues from it? None of that is the purpose of Google Maps any longer.”
If you’re struggling with Google Maps, you might want to look at alternatives. Wellings suggests users check out Here and Apple Maps who are doing contrast and context well. Another useful alternative is OpenStreetMap, which is an open-source map where data is contributed by users and businesses that use it too, such as the offroad and hiking travel app, Gaia GPS for example.
If you’re a business looking for an alternative to Google Maps, Mapbox provides mapping to websites and apps and is aimed at companies.