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 Spot Check

Maps tell stories. A simple glance can tell us a lot: what does the map want us to see, what’s important, what’s not, what’s wrong.  Let’s take a look and see what stories Apple, Google and Yahoo Japan maps are telling us.

Yahoo Japan Map Default View

Yahoo Japan Map default view
Yahoo Japan Map Asagaya area

Yahoo Japan Map tells us about transportation. Main routes, train and subway stations are highlighted above everything else. Note that Kanji color is restricted to high contrast dark colors that stand out well against the lighter background, station names are big and bold. ‘Three C’ icons are banished, the cartography is a nice clean balance of a few major labels and icons (7-Eleven, city hall, public school, post office, hospital) that stand out nicely from the background.

Google Maps Default View

Google Maps default view
Google Maps default view Asagaya area

Google Maps has followed the Yahoo Japan Map use of larger Kanji labels for (Google designated) important points: stations, parks, temple, church, hospital, school, but city hall is missing. While the larger Kanji labels are great for Kanji legibility, Google botches it by using low contrast green, gray and blue Kanji colors, a no-no.

Another mistake is that major roads are indistinguishable from side roads, Why does Google think that parks are more important than train stations, main roads and supermarkets?

Last but not least it is unfortunate that Google is using more three c icons in default view. Google cartography was better when they did not.

Apple Maps Default View

Apple Maps default view
Apple Maps default view Asagaya area

Apple Maps does not tell a story because it doesn’t have one. Unfortunately Apple Maps cartography has not changed much from the horrible Justin O’Beirne led cartography design that dates from the 2012 launch era and is long overdue for a makeover. Until that happens, here is some constructive criticism:

  • The default view is zoomed out too far to be useful
  • Follow Yahoo Japan and banish ‘three c’ icons from the default view. Three C icons clutter and distract instead of relaying useful information. Reserve them for user searches where they work best.
  • Do not use color Kanji labels
  • Increase the contrast on everything. Roads should stand out from background, main routes should stand out from side roads, stations colors should be red.
  • Use larger text sizes for important station labels.