Wake me when we get there: Apple Maps Transit Missing Features

Apple Maps Transit in Japan has a great transit data supplier, the same one as Google, but I don’t use it much. It’s just not that handy at finding the fastest route or cheapest route or route with the fewest transfer points, it doesn’t let me sort results or search for different train times on the fly.

For a map app the geosynchronous functions of Apple Map Transit are curiously weak. Even after engaging a route Apple Maps Transit has trouble keeping track of where it is or letting you know. Forget about geo anything if you are riding the subway, you’ll be in the dark the whole way.

Apple Maps Transit is a plodding one trick pony. That’s why everybody in Japan uses dedicated transit apps like Yahoo Japan Transit or the venerable Eki-supato (cleverly combining station-eki + expert = eki-supato, get it?). Not only do these dedicated apps find great transit routes quickly they let you sort results quickly by fare, fast, number of transit points, etc., or just quickly move to earlier~later blocks of departure times.

After you engage a route you have all kinds of granular alerts for transit points and destination points, and great geosynchronous feedback, you are here and your station is coming up. Eki-supato really knows their user base though, I mean a transit app really isn’t a Japanese transit app without “Drunk Mode” to make sure hard-working, hard-drinking salarymen don’t miss the last train home.

Maybe the Apple Maps team should create “Eddy Mode” to keep Eddy Cue awake and focused at Apple Map team meetings. It might help the Apple Maps Reboot make some real progress.

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Apple Maps Japan Finally Adds Indoor Mapping

Almost a year later than first expected, Apple has finally added indoor maps for Japan on iOS 11 and iOS 12. Narita Airport (Chiba) and Chubu Airport (Nagoya) are the kickoff points for what is hopefully going to be a continuous rollout. Major airports like Haneda and stations such as Tokyo and Shinjuku are still AWOL and the iOS Feature Availability list has not been updated yet.

One of the problems that Apple Maps faces in Japan is that multiple agencies hold different indoor map data sources. Shinjuku station for example is a collection of 4 different railway companies and more than 3 subway lines. Collecting and coordinating a complete robust data set takes time.

Apple Maps Japan is still missing some other major services available in other areas: traffic, lane guidance and speed limits. It will be interesting to see if the Apple Maps makeover gets any mention during the September 12 event.

Apple Maps Japan Reboot Challenge: Information Density

Asagaya Pearl Center Arcade Roof

Now that the Apple Maps reboot has been announced and is starting a slow rollout in America, I want to highlight some of the challenges Apple Maps Japan faces in an ongoing quick point “Reboot Challenge” series. The first topic is information density.

Google Maps and Apple Maps are good at some things, but presenting complex information-dense localities like Tokyo in a consistent user-friendly way is a perpetual weak point. Even local champ Yahoo Japan Maps does not do it well.

Here is a quick point comparison of a location in Tokyo, the Asagaya Pearl Center covered shopping arcade that basically runs from JR Asayaga Station to City Hall. The challenge is how to present stacked information on a flat map. In this example there is a large Matsumoto-Kiyoshi Drug Store on the 1st floor and a large Saizeria Restaurant on the 2nd floor.

Asagaya Pearl Center

Let’s compare the usual suspects: Apple Maps, Google Maps and Yahoo Japan Maps, and see how they stack up.

Apple Maps does surprisingly well listing both drug store and restaurant but not geographically correct: they are on top of each other not side by side. It also lists the nearby 7-Eleven, again geographically incorrect as it occupies part of a 1st floor with 2 store entrances on either side. Google Maps and Yahoo Japan Maps simply show the 2nd floor restaurant, delete the 1st floor drug store and don’t bother with 7-Eleven.

Indoor mapping isn’t necessarily the best solution. Detailed indoor maps easily overwhelm the user with too much detail. We don’t need more map vomit. The trick here is to come up with a simple intuitive UI that quickly shows stacked information then gets out of the way. Unfortunately nobody has come up with an elegant solution yet. It’s a good challenge for any digital map cartography team.

Apple Maps Japan Reboot Start Line

Apple Japan Map Data CollectionNow that the Apple Maps reboot has been announced and is starting a 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.

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.