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A Map is not a Service

22. September 2014

When developing new apps or new software products, designers often refer to the notion of »services«. The idea is that the software should have a clear purpose and help the users to complete a specific task. Conceptual and technical complexities should be hidden in order to give the users a pleasant and frictionless user experience. This works especially well when the parameters and the possible variations, that are taken care of in the background, do not have a great influence on the quality of the user experience.

Consider taking a cab. You enter the taxi, state your destination and relax. At some point the cab reaches its destination, you pay and you leave the car. All the complexities – building a car, owning a car, driving a car, navigating through the city – are hidden from you. In most cities, taking a cab is a good service.

A service is like a black box. You specify your problem – and you get a solution.

There are many situations, where such a service-oriented approach in software design is absolutely preferable. Overwhelming options and dependencies can frustrate users and the notion of delivering clear and simple services through software is fine. But in order to make a service work, you have to trust it.

Maps and data visualisations have a completely different approach. They do not offer a service or a simple solution. They show the complexity of a situation or an issue – but they can enable the users to relate to this complexity. They contain much more information than the users currently need. But this additional information presents a context for understanding and thus provides the user with a scope of possible actions. The user has to generate the solution for him- or herself.

When you are using them, maps and visualisations are essentially about decision making. Using being the operative word here. There are many intriguing visualisations and many captivating maps out there. The National Maps of Switzerland are probably the most beautiful maps ever1. I could spend hours just looking at them, imagining the mountains, glaciers and the valleys, enjoying the sheer beauty of the maps. But it makes a difference if you are warm and comfy at home and enjoying the map – or if you are near the Cima di Gagnone, lost in the clouds and trying to figure out a way over the ridge 2. In a moment like this, a map becomes a vital instrument for decision making. Using it means that you literally decide your next steps based on the interpretation of the map.

The same is true for good data visualisation. There are many beautiful and intriguing data visualisations out there. I love to explore them, discover relationships, learn new things and just enjoy the playfulness of the interaction. But their real power enfolds when you have to figure something out and act on it.

The gold standard for data visualisation is informed decision making. To have an interactive »map« that enables you to judge the situation, that displays possible options and that allows you to create a plan for action.

It takes more effort to interpret and to understand data visualisations than services. Maps and data visualisations are not necessarily about reducing complexity. They make complexities readable and allow the users to relate to the data, generate insights and make decisions. Visualisations can be empowering as they leave the interpretation of the data to the user3.

These two different approaches are actually not totally divergent. Digital maps are visualisations, turn-by-turn navigation is a service. So both perspectives can be incorporated into one product. But conceptually they are very different.

The comparison of services and visualisations highlights a fundamental challenge in interaction- and interface design. When do you need a simple, uncomplicated solution that is easy to use but which internal decisions are opaque to the users? And when is it better to provide users with an interface or visualisation that is visually complex and contains a lot of options – but that is transparent and enables understanding?

As always, design is about trade-offs. But it should be a conscious decision. Not everything needs to be complex – but at the same time not everything needs to be simple.


  1. The maps are available online in all scales. 

  2. True story. 

  3. Deutungshoheit for my German readers. 



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