Apple Maps Japan Reboot Start Line

Apple Japan Map Data CollectionNow that the Apple Maps reboot has been announced and is starting its slow rollout in San Francisco, what kind of improvements can Japanese users expect in the months ahead? It will be a very slow rollout as Apple’s map data collection effort has only just started in Japan. Slow is good: 3rd party Japanese map data suppliers, imperfect though they may be, should only be swapped out when Apple’s own map data is properly collected, vetted and edited.

It’s clear that Apple plans to incorporate local cultural user conventions with the new map data. Matthew Panzarino:

The maps need to be usable, but they also need to fulfill cognitive goals on cultural levels that go beyond what any given user might know they need. For instance, in the U.S., it is very common to have maps that have a relatively low level of detail even at a medium zoom. In Japan, however, the maps are absolutely packed with details at the same zoom, because that increased information density is what is expected by users.

Actually Matthew they don’t. The biggest challenge of mapping Japan is presenting information density intelligently. Like a good editor who cleans up and brings clarity to a cluttered and confused article submission, a good map team intelligently edits complex information making it easy to understand and find things on the map.

I have been highly critical of the Justin O’Beirne led Apple Maps 2012 cartography design that is still in place because it’s a poor design fit for high density maps areas like Japan. Here’s a quick big 3 (Yahoo Japan Maps, Google, Apple) comparison of Shinjuku Station west exit area:

It’s easy to see that Apple Maps shows way too much stuff and overwhelms the user with information. To paraphrase Mean Girls, this is map vomit. The poor cartography design and poor editing (Apple’s misuse of ‘3C’ color coded icons for restaurants, hotels, schools, etc), gobbles up precious screen real estate forcing users to hunt for things.

Google Maps goes too far the other way and strips out too much information forcing the user to zoom in and Google’s 3C icon scheme is curiously lame.

The Yahoo Japan Maps team gets it just right with better color contrast, easy to read Japanese text labels with different sizes and intelligently deployed icons that reserve 3C icons for map search views. This is good map editing in action.

Here are possible changes I will be on the lookout for:

  • Higher contrast cartography with better Japanese text labeling
  • No map vomit: a default map view with far fewer, better designed icons and 3C icons reserved for map search
  • Intelligent indoor mapping for major Japanese stations
  • 3D mapping that doesn’t obscure surrounding map information
  • Traffic, Lane Guidance, Speed Limits and other missing iOS features of Apple Maps Japan
  • More Apple collected Japanese map information with missing pieces proved by top-tier JP map supplier Zenrin. The less 3rd rate 3rd party JP map data from Yelp, Foursquare and IPC the better
  • Destination check lists: smart transit information that updates on the fly and lets me set more than one destination

It will be slow but slow, constant intelligent updates will get Apple Maps Japan where it needs to go and finally deliver a superior map experience for Japanese iOS customers.

Advertisements

Apple Is Rebuilding Maps From The Ground Up

Apple Map vans coming to Japan was just a small taste of things to come. Matthew Panzarino got the big scoop on the new Apple Maps. In addition to Apple collecting their own map data, cartography is also due for a major makeover.

Instead of doing the “Google Maps is the world standard so screw local cultural conventions” thing, Apple seems to be going out of its way to embrace them:

The maps need to be usable, but they also need to fulfill cognitive goals on cultural levels that go beyond what any given user might know they need. For instance, in the U.S., it is very common to have maps that have a relatively low level of detail even at a medium zoom. In Japan, however, the maps are absolutely packed with details at the same zoom, because that increased information density is what is expected by users.

In Japan Yahoo Japan Maps is the gold standard to beat but it looks like Apple Maps is about to get interesting again.

Apple Maps Japan Update June 2018

Apple Maps Japan Data Collection
Apple’s Japanese page is poorly localized for Japan: an English title is better than nothing but should be in Japanese (fixed now).

It is nice to know that the Apple Maps team is getting serious about mapping Japanese data themselves. Most of the problems with Apple Maps Japan to date have been caused by 3rd rate 3rd party data suppliers so Apple collecting their own map data is a start towards a better map product for Japanese customers.

There are some notably omissions in the data collection startup list: only 20 of the 23 Tokyo wards are covered. Suginami-ku, Setagaya-ku and Nerima-ku are huge missing pieces along with the rest of the populous west Tokyo Chou line area (Mitaka, Tachikawa, etc.). Suginami-ku is one of the most important Tokyo districts, perhaps the most: whatever political party wins an election in Suginami wins Japan.

There are other big Apple Maps services that are missing in Japan: Indoor Maps were promised back at WWDC17 but have yet to appear, Traffic, Lane Guidance and Speed Limits are AWOL. Most of these services have been offered in Yahoo Japan Maps and Google Maps in Japan for years.

Even without their own data, Apple Maps Japan has made, (very) slow progress fixing some major data errors and holes. The Great Shibu Hot Spring Data Cutoff for example is finally fixed. This is how it looked 2 years ago:

This is how it looks today:

The Great Shibu Hot Spring Data Cutoff Fixed

The missing 2015 extensions to the Ken-O Expressway pointed out by blogger Train in 2017 looked like this:Missing Ken-O Highway

Today it looks like this:

The Missing Ken-O Highway Fixed

I have not checked all of my Apple Maps Japan error inventory but I think progress is being made. Now if Apple would only dump the horrible Justin O’Beirne era cartography design that dates back to 2012 and create something new, I might even get excited again.

Siri Clueless with Apple Maps Japan Garbage Data

I use Apple Maps in the field occasionally but warily, like a dog that isn’t house broken despite 5 years of training,  Apple Maps sometimes obeys, sometimes it pees on my leg. In a perfect world Siri would also obey but like one bad dog following another, when Apple Maps goes wrong, Siri goes very wrong.

I was in Nagoya recently to attend a friend’s wedding banquet at Castle Plaza Hotel. Nagoya, aka Toyota Town, is a big city that feels like a country town, everybody grew up there and love it. Landmark places like Castle Plaza are institutions (grandpa got married there) that everybody knows. Except Siri.

At Nagoya station I asked Siri in Japanese for “ Castle Plaza near Nagoya station.” Siri showed me some other places called Castle, none of them in Nagoya. Google Maps got Castle Plaza right away, so did Yahoo Japan Map.

The Apple Maps place card shows the place-name in English: “Castle Plaza.” Apple Maps Japan data supplier, Booking.com in this case, has not followed Japanese place name protocol. Google and Yahoo correctly list the Japanese name as “キャッスルプラザ,” which matches local signage.

Japanese Siri needs Japanese names to find things and it seems to be lurking somewhere out of sight in Apple Maps metadata. A dictation keyword search for “キャッスルプラザ” directly in Apple Maps finds the place, but the same keyword search in Siri does not.

Keyword searches are the trained seals of talking assistants, nothing is more basic: throw it a fish, it honks a horn. Even with an iPhone in Tokyo, keyword search finds the right Nagoya Castle Plaza in Google Maps, Yahoo Japan Maps and Apple Maps, but Siri honks the wrong horn every time.

This means 1 of 5 things:

1) Booking.com is not taking care of their Japanese metadata
2) Apple Maps is not taking care of their Japanese metadata
3) Siri is not taking care of their Japanese metadata
4) Nobody cares
5) All of the above

Take your pick. This is exactly the dysfunction described in Something Went Wrong in Siri’s and Apple Maps Development: One Last Time. Is Eddie Cue OK with a lousy Siri/Apple Maps experience in Japan? Is Tim Cook?

After 5 years they must have some idea of the problem. The only conclusion is  that they are OK with it, Team Apple priorities are somewhere else.

Station Number Olympics

IMG_1999

If you have ridden any train in Tokyo since 2016, you have come across station number signage like the picture above. In the run up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics Japanese transit companies nationwide have been busy implementing station numbering and installing new signage everywhere.

JR East implemented the largest Japanese station numbering scheme in October 2016. All JR Tokyo train lines have 2 letter codes combined with long-established train line colors:station numbering chart 1.jpgMajor stations have three letter codes:station numbering letter chart

The entire package looks like this:fullsizeoutput_6125

Station numbering might look good on paper but the reality in a major station like Shinjuku, the world’s busiest train station, is confusing.

A major weak point of station numbering is that users are presented with a bunch of different station numbers when several different line converge at a station point. The Shinjuku station number changes with each line on each platform:

Each platform has its own different numbering as well:

IMG_1992
One of the many Shinjuku staton platforms

The different station numbers for Shinjuku are unified by the three-letter SJK Shinjuku station code.

スクリーンショット 2017-05-29 9.42.49
The different parts of the JR icon

But if the station does not have a three-letter code, all you get are a bunch of different, separate station numbers, such as Nagano station, a small but frustrating transfer point.

Of the major digital Japan map services (Apple, Google and Yahoo Japan) only Apple goes all in with station numbering and train line codes. Google and Yahoo Japan don’t use them at all.

This is very apt, Yahoo Japan and Google focus on features Japanese users like while Apple focuses on features that appeal more to international users than Japanese users. Here is a comparison of the same transit trip on Yahoo Japan, Google and Apple:
(Note that Yahoo Japan puts in extra effort to show fare of each transfer point and which car to ride to be nearest the destination exit, nice touches)

Real communication or sowing seeds of misunderstanding?
Station numbering is 1980s era thinking, a time when most of the signage was Japanese with English an after thought, if at all. In today’s Japan we have English everywhere. We also have smartphones, Google Translate, multilingual train announcements and multilingual electronic info screens on trains and subways:

IMG_1943
Tokyo trains have screens that endlessly loop train information in Japanese and English.

The real problem is that station numbers and train codes lull international visitors into thinking that Japanese know and use them. They don’t.

Listen carefully on a Tokyo train and you will notice station numbers are not used in Japanese announcements, only in the English ones. Station numbers and train line codes mean nothing to the average Japanese person, they exist in a hot house bubble with no connection to real world use.

As the Japanese blog Memory is a Person points out, if a foreigner asks, “How can I get to the JA line?” a Japanese person will invariably assume they want the nearest JR line. OSK will be mistaken for Osaka, and so on.

In other words, station numbers, station codes and train codes end up creating the very problem they were designed to solve: confusion.