Justin O’Beirne

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Google‘s Unique Approach to Cartographic Redesigns

A Google Maps executive once told me that changing cartography is like boiling a frog. Change too much, too soon — and users might react or even revolt. But change things slowly over time, and they won’t even notice. The map will feel as though it’s improving, but no one will quite know why—just that it’s getting better and better.

Looking back over the decade so far, there seems to be some truth to this. Three of the biggest cartography changes were Bing Maps in 2010, Apple Maps in 2012, and Google Maps in 2013. And in two of those — Bing and Apple — users revolted.

What made Google different?



⚠️ Tap or click any image to enlarge




Design has to work; art does not.

Back in the Summer of 2010, Bing Maps was losing ground to Google Maps.

Aiming to attract users to its struggling mapping platform (and keep developers from migrating away), Microsoft needed a bold move — something that would cause people to take a second look.

So it teamed up with Stamen, a San Francisco design studio known for artful and experimental cartography…

…and together, Microsoft and Stamen crafted a striking new vision of online cartography.

But when it was released late one August afternoon, it was a vision that few outside of Microsoft understood. And instead of winning new users, it ended up alienating many of its existing ones.

Fewer labels. Less contrast. Harder to read. To many of Bing’s users, the cartography had regressed.

Now that’s not to say that the new map wasn’t beautiful. But it was a beauty rooted in subtlety — and hence, the problem: If a map is a way of communicating, should that communication be subtle? Or obvious and clear?

In the end, Bing may have had the most striking map — but it didn’t have the clearest…

…and those already using Google Maps had little reason to switch away.

But the frustration over Bing’s new cartography would pale in comparison to the outrage that Microsoft’s old arch-rival would face two summers later…




Design cannot rescue failed content.

Two summers after Bing revamped its cartography, Apple sought to make a cartographic splash of its own. It was to be “the most beautiful, powerful mapping service ever” — a design so good, iPhone users would forget Google Maps had even existed.

But no matter how much prettier Apple’s new map was compared to what it replaced, it couldn’t erase the fact that its content was orders of magnitude worse and often comically inaccurate.

David Pogue of The New York Times likened Apple’s new Maps app to a $1,500 professional coffee maker that had had moldy beans poured into it, calling it “the most embarrassing, least usable piece of software Apple has ever unleashed”. Wired, meanwhile, crowned it 2012’s biggest tech fail.

Whereas Bing had regressed the map’s usability, Apple had regressed the map’s accuracy. And users were furious.

But what made Bing’s and Apple’s changes even more infuriating was their sudden rollout. Bing had changed overnight, with no prior warning or announcement, surprising its users. And though Apple was careful not to repeat Bing’s mistake by announcing its map three months ahead of time, the vast majority of Apple’s 300 million users had never actually used it before its launch. (The only way to preview Apple’s new map was to sign up for a $99 developer’s license and install buggy pre-release software onto an iPhone.)

Making matters worse, neither Bing nor Apple left users any way to revert to the old map.

So when Bing and Apple suddenly flipped the switch, their customers felt as if a rug had been pulled from underneath them. And a firestorm ensued. Things eventually got so bad that Apple’s CEO was forced to write a public apology, recommending competing mapping products.

It’s not hard to imagine the Google Maps team watching the Apple Maps revolt in horror, as they were secretly preparing a cartography update of their own — an update that was to be the largest and most ambitious in Google Maps’s history…




Less than a year after the Apple Maps debacle, Google announced a dramatically redesigned map of its own:

But it released its new map a bit differently than Apple or Bing.

As soon as it was announced, Google allowed anyone interested to request an invitation to a “beta” version of the new map—a brilliant move buying Google three things:

   1 - It kept the new map’s initial user-base small and contained.

   2 - Because the new map could only be used while signed in, it allowed Google to carefully monitor and study each invitee’s behavior — and make behavior-driven improvements.

   3 - Designating the new map as a “beta” allowed Google to manage user expectations; i.e., “beta” was code for “expect bugs”.

As expected, Google’s most passionate and vocal users (i.e., those most likely to ignite an online firestorm if displeased) requested invitations — as did those who couldn’t resist the exclusivity of invite-only access to a new Google product.

Google then went on to spend more than ten months collecting feedback, fixing bugs, and tweaking and re-tweaking the map before finally releasing it to the rest of its user base (which was nearing one billion users).

But here was another stroke of genius: instead of releasing its map to everyone on the same day, it carefully rolled it out to different segments of users over a three week period.

This was in stark contrast to Bing and Apple, who had released their maps on a single day — and in doing so, created instant mobs out of their user-bases.

But in having twenty-one release days (instead of just one), Google effectively compartmentalized its user-base, guaranteeing that any mob that formed would be small and that any fires that broke out would quickly be contained. There would be no massive pile on as there was in the wake of Apple’s release. And if anything started to go bad, Google could simply switch off the spigot.

But perhaps the most important thing Google did differently was that it gave its users an escape hatch—an easy way to revert back to the old version anytime they wanted, no questions asked. In other words, no one was forced to use Google’s new map. And it made all the difference.


*   *   *


Bing and Apple threw their users into scalding water—water so hot, they jumped right back out. But Google boiled them slowly, so slowly that they never even noticed. There was no revolt. No outcry.

Boiling frogs, indeed.


*   *   *


Looking back over Google Maps’s history, the cautious approach we saw in 2013 seems to have been Google’s modus operandi all along.

Though Google Maps looks completely different today than at its launch in 2005…

…it has gotten that way by evolving slowly and gradually:

So if history is any guide, the map has likely changed very little with Google’s most recent iteration—with minimal impact to our Comparison.

But let’s look anyway…



© 2016  Justin O’Beirne  ·  Contact