#GIS Tips – Let’s talk about the GUI mess

Don’t know how but yesterday turned into a discussion on GIS in education and the assumptions over what it is that children actually want or need. All well and good but at no point was the age of the children discussed or what was referred to in the curriculum – Either way, one thing was clear, no-one would let a child near a current GIS without some changes to the Graphical User Interface (GUI) which, ironically,  fits in with my themes of knowing the audience and making GIS more accessible.

ArcGIS Interface




What were you expecting?

Ignoring that we were talking about making GIS available for kids, there were many comments from students, teachers and GIS users all commenting on how difficult they have found it to get used to the interfaces on GIS software. Well, when I say GIS software, the 11 remarks I got were all related to ESRI’s ArcGIS software, though I am sure the issues are not confined to ArcGIS alone, the proprietary market leader is always going to be the scapegoat……

The issues with the interfaces all related to the complexity of the interface and I have to agree with them a little, it is SCARY! I still remember my first job using ArcGIS 8.x and opening it up and wondering which button I had to use to draw a line. This is nothing, I refused to use QGIS for many years as I couldn’t get my head around having to add your data under several different categories, either vector, raster, MySQL, PostGIS or other, rather than having one button to push….if you are new to the genre, how are you supposed to know what type of data you have?

Expectation is defined by the creator and not the user

Unless you are a regular user of the rather fantastic Massacheusettes Ocean Resource Information System (MORIS), I challenge you to open it up and =;

  1.  Change the Basemap, and
  2.  Add the Area of Interest for long-tailed ducks
  3.  Download the data

Not so easy right? There is and expectation that you are familiar with this form of layout and the data.

This is the current problem inherent in almost all GIS software and a lot of web map systems available today, they are mostly designed with the GIS old timer in mind. To even get started on most systems you need to go on a course or at least get shown the ropes on how it all works.

When you thing about it, how long would you spend trying to use something before you went and tried something else? A minute? 5 minutes? This is what we are doing to potential new users of GIS every day….effectively only letting in the most dedicated or financially comfortable to enter the industry.

The point is?

It doesn’t have to be this way, how easy was it for you to use Google Earth the first time? How hard was it to draw something and send it to your friend? Pretty easy, wasn’t it?

Google Earth was created with no user expectation of prior knowledge, and it shows. The interface is clear and well structured so that it feels like other software which you are familiar with, yet it has a lot of functionality.

The point to this is that, just because we are used to seeing complex interfaces, we don’t have to impose them on our users – We need to be more smart and be more aware of our user. We should create our interfaces based on the USER.

A button that is intuitive to us may not necessarily be intuitive to  someone else. I refer here to buttons like the yellow diamond with a black cross on it or the one with just three dots on (extra points for knowing it) – I am sure people use them because they are trying to use familiar symbols to the major softwares’ offerings, though to a non-GIS user, they mean nothing.

Next time you set up a new web map, have a think about whether all those buttons are necessary, does the user NEED to have all that functionality? Is there a way to auto-hide the tools or have pop-ups which describe the tool button?

Seriously ESRI?

Surprisingly I am not alone in my thoughts it would appear….In the last quarter of last year, ESRI announced ArcGIS for Professionals, one of the key items for me was “tools only when you need them”.

arcgis pro

This image of ArcGIS Professional in action seems to show a much cleaner and clearer interface with less of the buttons we usually see scattered all over the interface. So far, so good.

As a final piece, I just want to say that if we are ever going to make GIS a more welcoming and usable environment, we need to make it more accessible and more inviting. Google Earth has shown us just how easy it is to get the masses interested in the Earth and location, let’s keep that ball rolling and think more about our audience.

Nick D



1 Comment

  1. Your GUI musings are spot on. The value is in the data, and what can be done with it; the more people can make us of it, the higher the potential value and probability of further innovation. I’m not pooh-poohing the deep-tools, and I’m not advocating for ‘Fisher-Price’ tools; but I also wish more effort was expended in serving varied levels of user. There are parallels in other segments: commercial CAD has become a billion pound Gorilla, but my kids were using SketchUp in gradeschool…

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