Reviewing digital maps is really difficult because cartography doesn’t come with version numbers. Apple and Google roll out cartography and service tweaks when ready because it’s all just backend stuff anyway.
So the new version of Yahoo Japan’s MAP app (v5) is a pleasant surprise. Not only is there a reference number to track the new cartography, there are major new features and a well thought out balance of map information while keeping things simple, clean and easy to comprehend. There is a lot that Apple and even Google can learn here.
Yahoo Japan has always had better cartography than Apple and Google. The v5 upgrade widens the lead. There are two simple but highly effective design choices that make this happen.
- Use real world street signage for the default view.
This is a smart choice that Apple and Google often forget about: map icons that match what you see in the street: station exits and marquee signage (convenience stores, fast food, major franchises, etc) match their real world counterparts. This is crucial because those are important navigation and meeting points. But wait, don’t Apple and Google do that too? Not as much as you would think and they get it wrong because the secret sauce is….
- Only use color coded icons for map search results.
One of the really bad cartography design choices that Apple makes is keeping all the color coded icons in the default view (orange for cafes/restaurants, yellow for shops, blue for services, etc.). This is not information. It is unnecessary paint splatter on a wall that confuses the user and makes everything hard to find. Google does this too but much less than Apple.
Yahoo Japan MAP banishes all color coded icons to map search where they belong. All default view map icons are either crucial marquee signage or simple white background high contrast designs that don’t get in the way. And when searching they change to the necessary color code you are looking for.
Let’s see how these cartography choices play out in a typical Tokyo “sandwich station” like Gotanda: train station on top, major road in the middle, subway station below. A comparison with v4 cartography shows cleaner design details: slightly toned down road and station colors, toned down building outlines, stylized single color traffic light icons and nice attractive new icon designs for all the basics: banks, hotels, police stations, hospitals, schools, everything.
Also note the yellow station exits, they have migrated from the indoor map view to the default view. Good move: station exits are important navigation information.
Here are comparison views of Gotanda from Apple and Google. No yellow station exit signage anywhere. Yahoo Japan MAP intelligent use of color gives a better sense of layers even without accessing the indoor mapping control.
Digital maps are still young and evolving, incorporating new features all the time, but the job of any map is to orient and connect you with important information at a glance, at any moment. If it can’t do that, the map is a failure.
Search: Yahoo Japan MAP is King of the One Screen Search
The biggest change in v5 is map search. This used to be the weakest part of Yahoo Japan MAP but not anymore.
The Yahoo Japan map team came to the conclusion long ago that color coded icons are the wrong default map view choice for a densely packed Japanese metropolis. Any single building can house multiple cafes, restaurants and shops, multiplied across every building in a small area is serious information overload to fit on a smartphone screen. The trick is not forcing the user to jump through hoops to find stuff.
Here is a comparison of map search screens for Yahoo Japan, Apple and Google:
Yahoo Japan MAP does the cafe search in one touch and one screen. Apple does the same cafe search with three touches and three screens. Google also does it with three touches and three screens.
Why should it take three actions? This is the kind of detail question that Steve Jobs drove his development teams crazy with all the time. I wonder if the higher ups at Apple and Google pay attention to this kind of thing anymore.
There isn’t anything new in this category other than a slightly refreshed UI icon but it’s worth comparing the simple and practical Yahoo Japan approach with Apple and Google.
Yahoo Japan MAP gives the user a UI control even when zoomed out and treats the entire station structure as one discrete object with different floors. This approach scales well with complex station structures such as Shinjuku.
Google forces the user to zoom in before showing UI controls to access station floor plans in bits and pieces. Apple shows you almost nothing at all:
It is amazing how much effort and resources that Apple and Google squander on developing features that don’t add much value. Yahoo Japan MAP does not have 3D mapping or flyover, features I find completely useless.
Far more practical, useful and essential is the Yahoo Japan MAP precipitation live radar with six hour forecast. Apple and Google can tell me it’s raining in Tokyo but Yahoo! MAP tells me where, when and how much it is, or will be, raining at work, the supermarket or on the walk home from the train station. Truly, deeply useful.
Yahoo Japan has pulled off an amazing update by focusing on and simplifying basic map features. They don’t have the resources or market of Apple or Google but in classic samurai fashion have transformed weakness into strength. The cartography is best of class smart and simple.
Map search has morphed from a jumbled mess that was v4 into a one screen wonder that trounces Apple and Google. The indoor mapping and weather reporting strengths remain in place.
The power of doing more with less is on full display in Yahoo Japan MAP v5. It’s a lesson that Google would do well to remember, and Apple Maps to learn.