Google Maps got a completely new look a couple of weeks ago. (On a computer in a web browser, not on your phone or tablet.) There is a huge amount of information packed into the new interface but it is not an easy process to discover it all. Many people (myself included) find it frustrating because it seems simultaneously streamlined and cluttered, and familiar things have been moved around and seem more difficult to use. More about the details below.
Is the change good or bad?
Pity the poor developers.
Let’s take a trip down memory lane.
Microsoft felt it had reached the end of the design for the Office programs after Office 2003. The menus were cluttered and people were not discovering new features. The programs were redesigned and the ribbon bar across the top of the Office programs was introduced in Office 2007. It was immediately controversial, with Office jockeys complaining about the interruption caused by having to learn new locations for commands. There are still people to this day who hate the ribbon and install add-ins to restore the old menus and icons. After getting used to it, most people realized the ribbon was a better way to keep things organized, and Microsoft has now expanded it to File Explorer, but it was a rocky transition.
Last year Jony Ive was given the job of overhauling the dated iOS interface used by hundreds of millions of people on iPhones and iPads. Most of the cosmetic changes were easy for people to accept but I still hear from people who are upset by the things that were moved around or relabeled. And it was a modest update in many ways – Ive’s hands were tied by the need to avoid changes that would disrupt the habits of a large and vocal worldwide community of people who use the devices every day.
Microsoft saw the mobile revolution passing it by, with a strong possibility that Windows would become a fading and increasingly irrelevant operating system used on business desktop computers but not on the phones and tablets that people are using to communicate and collaborate and get work done. In 2012 it redesigned Windows to display a Start screen instead of a Start menu, and moved some controls to places that could be easily accessed on touchscreens as well as with a keyboard and mouse. The goal for Windows 8 was an OS with small changes to the familiar desktop environment and an interface that would scale to smaller screens.
The outcry was immediate. It was loud. It was the scream of a world that had been asked to do something different on a screen that was unfamiliar. Windows 8 is well on its way to succumbing to the Vista stink of death, the perception that it must be deeply flawed because, after all, “everybody knows” it’s deeply flawed. The executives at Microsoft who pushed the changes in Windows 8 have left the company.
Put aside the question of whether the redesign of any of those products made things better or worse. All technology companies are now dealing with the inherent conservatism of users who achieve a hard-won understanding of some aspect of their devices and would rather have that stay the same than learn something new, even if the changes might benefit them in the long run.
Google is the latest company to deal with that resistance.
The interface for the Google Maps web site has been redesigned from the ground up. Take a look if you haven’t visited in the last couple of weeks. If you don’t see a new full-screen interface, look for a button on the left that says “The New Google Maps – Get It Now.” At some point the new interface will become the default.
In theory the changes to Google Maps are all good. Google has accumulated an incredible amount of mapping data and everyone using Google Maps has a different idea of what they want to get out of it. Google has set up guides to help you explore the new Maps here and here. This is just a sampling of what can be accessed from the new interface – if you know where to look.
– Click anywhere on the map and it will display nearby businesses, restaurants, and hotels.
– Directions from place to place might compare different routes or compare different methods of transportation so you can see whether it’s faster to drive or use public transportation.
– Endless visuals. Photos appear in a strip along the bottom. You can switch to street view, of course, but you can also switch to the “Earth view” that previously was only accessible in the separate Google Earth program. It allows tilting the map to show the elevation of hills and mountains, plus 3D representations of buildings in major cities.
– Cards pop up with information about destinations. Search for a restaurant and the card that pops up might have its address, hours, website, phone number, and reviews. Search for a hotel and you can book a room straight from the popup card.
– There’s live traffic information as well as predictions based on past history.
There’s far more as you go deeper into Google Maps, but it’s presented with a minimalist UI. There are very few visible controls – a conscious decision that makes it easier to present the service on devices with smaller screens.
Fast Company describes the changes this way: “ ‘The old Maps was a lot like a Christmas tree,’ says Jonah Jones, lead designer for Google Maps. ‘We kept on adding these beautiful new ornaments, but over the years, the ornaments started weighing the tree down, and it became hard to find the one you were looking for.’ The accumulated cruft of almost a decade of development had resulted in a design that was cluttered and obtuse, with countless Google services layered over one another. This made features hard to discover, unless you already knew they were there.”
It sounds familiar. It’s the same dilemma that led Microsoft to redesign Office and Apple to redesign iOS. And it has had the same result. There are dozens of complaints about the new Google Maps here in the thread “I HATE THE NEW GOOGLE MAPS.” Article on Yahoo: “Hate the new Google Maps update? Here are five alternatives!” I’ve felt adrift myself and I’ve heard the same complaint from others about the difficulty discovering how to do something that we used to know how to do.
There’s no answer except to hope that the change turns out to be better as we become more familiar with it. It’s worth noting that for the moment, there is a way to go back to the familiar Google Maps interface: click the Help button (white question mark in a blue circle) at the bottom, then click Return to classic Google Maps.
It won’t be the last time that the ground shifts under our feet and we have to re-learn our technology and our devices. Change is our only constant. Buckle up!