Google recently announced that they were getting ready to roll out a new version of Maps, a product I use pretty heavily. Living in a city like San Francisco that doesn’t heavily depend on a grid system and being a person who gets around via bicycle or public transportation means I rarely have any idea how to get where I’m going, but access to searchable, customizable web-based mapping software means I at least look like I know what I’m doing. (Most of the time.)
I signed up to be an early tester and recently gained access to the new system. I haven’t spent hours with it, but so far I’m pretty impressed. Their team has addressed a number of problems that I’ve had with Maps in the past. Visually, I find it generally more appealing than previous iterations, but I question a couple of their UX decisions.
Note: I’m browsing in Lite Mode, because the non-Lite mode apparently requires OS 10.8. None of my computers use it, so I’m sure there are things I’m missing out on. I hope that when the new Maps actually rolls out, it’s more accessible.
The usual players are here: turn by turn directions, point A to point B. I got Beer Revolution’s address by searching for it in my directions bar, an experience that has wildly improved. It’s hard to quantify why, but something about the searching I’ve done so far has felt faster, smoother, and more accurate at predicting what business I’m actually looking for.
Current Google Maps users will notice that we’ve got much more screen real estate than we used to, all dedicated to the map. I like this a lot. The overview is great and the map is generally what I’m most interested in, so removing the sidebar (used in previous versions for photos from surrounding locations, links to business reviews and other content) is a welcome change. More map is a great thing.
One great thing about the Google Maps app is its access to traffic information. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been a passenger in a car coming home over the Golden Gate Bridge, only to hit a wall of traffic somewhere in Marin County. I’ll immediately reach for my phone to pull up Google Maps and get an update on how long we’ll be sitting here and where the major snags are. (Like it matters; we’re stuck there anyway. Still, knowledge is power.) The timing is often scary-accurate.
The problem with how traffic is interpreted in the desktop version of Maps is that aside from one “Currently…” message in the top bar, it’s difficult to really understand what’s going on. There are a lot of conflicting line weights here, and the label for the route still claims it’ll take 24 minutes (despite the “Currently 51 minutes” message a few pixels to the right).
Opening the step-by-step panel creates an additional issue, but let’s tackle the traffic problem first. Despite sticking with the traffic overlay (as it should), there is now no indicator whatsoever that you’re going to be in traffic for 27 minutes longer than anticipated. This is a trip that will take twice as long as it would if it wasn’t 3:45 in the afternoon. That’s a really necessary piece of information that’s getting lost in the shuffle. Worse, it’s not even getting lost – the largest type at the top of the directions list is just blatantly wrong.
When I clicked the step-by-step link, I assumed the natural behavior would be to expand the panel shown in the previous image. Instead, we’re taken to a brand new view. It’s not unattractive – quite the opposite – but it is completely inconsistent with the previous experience. It doesn’t appear to me that there’s a good justification for that decision. If that panel was expanded, it’d still be larger than the previous iterations of Maps, allowing for greater type legibility and the same visually clean approach we see here. The two layouts feel startlingly disconnected.
It was a really great day for me when Maps came out with bicycling directions. San Francisco is a hilly place, but there’s usually a smarter route you can take within a few blocks that will be a much more pleasant experience. Dedicated bike lanes and wide, sharrow-painted streets abound if you know where to look. The Bay Area is also a particularly pleasant place to ride your bike great distances, like the one shown above.
Previous versions of Maps would show you every single nearby bike route with a green overlay when you looked for cycling directions, which is fun to explore but not always necessary when you’re just trying to get from one point to the next. I like that they’ve simplified the layout here, making it more consistent with other modes of transportation. (Though I haven’t found overlay options, which makes me wonder if that’s a Lite view issue. If you have access to non-Lite and yours looks completely different, please let me know and I’ll update accordingly.)
I’m given two basic bicycle routes, both of which I’ve ridden and are good routes to take. I love the hidden card visual choice here – it’s reminiscent of Google Now, which I’ve raved about in the past and continue to love. I like the gray vs. blue approach to differentiate the paths and I’m particularly pleased with how the times and distances are labeled.
The same issues apply on step-by-step directions here that we saw in driving directions. Also frustrating is that the option to see my alternate route has been removed. I appreciate the decision to simplify (there might not actually be a reason for you to compare the two routes in a turn-by-turn list format), but deciding between two routes is now a feature exclusively limited to the visual overview. Jumping in and out of step-by-step mode to explore options feels unnecessary.
Walking directions are great, represented with a blue dotted line instead of the solid line used for faster modes of transportation. (I’ll skip getting catty over neighborhood names, but I’d just like to point out that no one has ever asked me to meet them in Dolores Heights in my entire life.) The alternate route representation that I like in bicycling directions finds a home here as well, but the same issue of hiding alternate routes in step-by-step vs. full map view still applies.
It’s a nice touch to have a simplified version of nearby rail options represented on the walking map. San Francisco has two major transit agencies within the city: BART, a rapid transit option that runs underground through downtown and into the Mission District, and Muni, which operates both buses and rail. Including bus stops might be beneficial for more rural areas, but if you were to do that on the map above you’d have literally hundreds of dots at nearly every intersection. By streamlining to just nearby rail stops, you remind walkers that there’s a shortcut if they’re interested, without beating them over the head with options they never asked for.
Transit directions are where Maps has always really shined, and the new version of Maps has made some great improvements. In dense urban areas, there are often many different transit lines you can take, depending on how much you’re willing to walk. From my corner of the city, you could feasibly take BART, the 12, the 14, the 27, and five or six other options if you’re willing to hoof it half a mile or so. There’s a lot of overlap between some of those routes – if you’re going from, say, 26th and Mission to 16th and Mission and want to rest your feet, the 14 and the 49 are identical choices.
There’s a lot of information represented on the map above. You can take either the Pittsburgh/Bay Point or the Richmond BART line to 12th street, and then you can take one of six buses down Broadway. (Or, as shown in the second option, you can walk a few blocks down Broadway and actually shave a minute off your travel time.) Google Maps used to represent all of these permutations as completely different routes, which, for the purposes of this specific destination, they aren’t. You can get on either of those BART lines and any of those buses and get where you’re going. It’s a very thoughtful way to represent all of those options.
The step-by-step directions are similar to what we’ve seen before, and I know I’ve criticized how visually different the two layouts are, but I do want to commend the Maps team for their work on the timeline at the top. It’s not unusual for transit users to look up their options well before leaving the house – sometimes transit times can surprise you. I love the timeline view. The minute-by-minute view makes it so easy to see how long you’ll be walking, how long you’ll be sitting on a train, and makes it pretty easy to tell if you should walk or take a bus for a couple of stops. The second line suggesting that you could walk a few blocks or take the 72 for a really short period of time goes a long way to convince someone that they should just walk it instead, a thing that’s harder to understand on a map view.
There was a BART delay yesterday, and you can see that represented on the step-by-step instructions. I really wish that was represented on the map view, and it makes little sense that it wasn’t. It was a system-wide issue, reported on BART’s official website. Transit delays are notoriously difficult to predict, so I don’t mind the time not being updated, but a heads-up before you view the full route breakdown would have helped. I use these lines regularly, and if it wouldn’t have been for wanting to get a screenshot for this post I wouldn’t have gone to the step-by-step page at all. I suspect I’m not alone on that.
So the new Google Maps is rad.
I’m really looking forward to watching Google roll out Maps across devices. I don’t know if a mobile version is in the works, but I’d be surprised if it was terribly far behind. Their preview page declares “the more you use the new Google Maps, the more helpful it becomes”, which sounds promising. There’s a lot of intuition here that I recognize from Google Now, and I think that’s great. I’ve had previous issues with Maps’ intuitive features – recognizing “home”, for example, has always been inconsistent for me – but the newest version made searching and getting where I wanted to go a breeze. A little more attention could be paid to visual consistency, but this is still a huge step up from where Maps has been for years.
A couple edits:
A few friends who are also in preview mode have noticed a couple of issues that I didn’t cover here. Hopefully they’ll be fixed in the final launch, because they’re pretty big ones. I assume Maps is rolling out in preview in a limited capacity, but a couple things you may notice as you’re moving around:
@jrizzo I really hope they integrate and expand the “My Maps” functionality. Right not it reverts to old maps when clicked.
— Brian Stechschulte (@AllOverBeer) June 5, 2013
@jrizzo New google maps. Route point a to b. now try C. D. E. They killed multi-route directions. I switched back in ten seconds.
— Dan Fisher (@dbfish) June 5, 2013