Make the hard things simple, and the simple things occasionally surprisingly hard

I’ve run two OpenStreetMap-themed training courses recently – one for university students, and one for a Local Authority. It’s great helping even more people get started with OpenStreetMap, and as is becoming a bit of theme, I took the opportunity to observe more people getting started with OSM.

Unlike previous outings to UCL, these two sessions had “getting started” notes that I had written – not a click-by-click tutorial, but notes of what things to try in a particular order. This lead to a little embarrassment when some of the seemingly innocuous instructions turned out to be surprisingly hard!

  • “Use the layer switcher to change the map layers” – the layer switcher is hard to find, even when you’re deliberately looking for it. We’re using the default “+” icon on osm.org – the stacked layers icon that I use on opencyclemap.org might be better. But I think best of all would be some rectangular buttons that are always visible. OpenLayers unfortunately makes this surprisingly hard.
  • “Set your home location” – this could do with some love. People want to type in their postcode, or at least search, in order to move the map around. I also found that about half a dozen people set their home location, and pressed edit, which opens Potlatch (despite the tab being “greyed out”) at somewhere unexpected.
  • “Add the person next to you as a friend” – this was a real head-slap moment when I thought about it. Given two people, sitting side by side, how do they add one another as a friend? If they are lucky, they’ve both set their home location within a hundred metres or so and show up on the list of nearby users. If not, the most straightforward way is to go to their own home page, edit the url, replace their username with the other person’s (case-sensitive) username, and then an “add as friend” link appears among all the other links. There’s so much wrong with this it’s embarrassing – or rather, embarrassing that I put the instructions in without thinking things through! A user search, and a button (rather than a link) to add as a friend, would help for a start.

The other things are things I noticed people trying to do, which are perfectly reasonable.

  • Go to http://www.osm.org. Click help. Admire. Now try to get back to the map, without pressing “Back” or retyping the url.
  • Go to help.openstreetmap.org and click on a username. Now try adding them as a friend.
  • Go to http://www.osm.org. Switch to another map layer. Click the map key. Get a blank tab.

Some maps don’t have a key (I’m guilty of that), but showing an empty panel isn’t helpful. We also found the wrong key appearing beside the different layers, but I can’t reproduce that today. As for the integration with the help centre – I know fine and well how tough it is to integrate separate software products, but users really neither know nor care about it.

And finally some run-of-the-mill observations, mainly of Potlatch 2

  • The p2 save dialog has too much text above the changeset comment field. People get bored reading it, I think because they aren’t expecting an interruption when they press save.
  • It’s still unclear how to start drawing lines and areas. In fact, most people accidentally start drawing lines, and press escape, without realising later on when they want to draw one that they already know how.
  • People want to add icons to points of interest that are already drawn, but as an area. Maybe we should symbolize areas, or even better, prevent icons from being dropped onto existing areas with the same tags.
  • People get mightily confused when the icons on the map don’t match the icons on the sidebar. Maybe we need to rethink how the sidebar icons appear.
  • Creating other points of interest is hard to figure out (i.e. double-click).
  • If you have a large named area, it can be non-obvious (especially when zoomed in) what’s causing the name to appear.
  • There’s useful shortcuts (like J) that don’t appear in the help.
  • There’s lots of useful actions that don’t have any GUI for them, unless you count documenting the keypresses on the 8th tab of the Help menu!
  • You can get to the situation where something hasn’t loaded – either the map, or in some cases map_features, and find yourself in a world of hurt, with no warning.
  • One person couldn’t figure out panning the map around while editing. That’s a combination of no buttons, and that if you (tentatively) click on the background, something happens (start drawing a way), so you learn not to click on the background. Of course, to pan the map you need to mousedown to drag it.
  • I’ve never seen anyone using the Potlatch 2 search button, but people often use the main search bar while editing. That often leads to pain when they click on the results.

One of the things that I want to work on within Potlatch 2 is to (mis)use the sidebar to provide context sensitive help. So I imagine when you’re drawing a way, a little square at the bottom of the sidebar says “You’re drawing a line. Double click to stop drawing, click on another way to create a junction” and so on. I think it’ll be especially useful for the first 10 minutes while people get to grips with things.

But, in saying all this, the feedback I get time and time again is how easy it is to get started with OSM, very rarely do I hear that participants found it hard. We can, however, make it even easier!

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9 thoughts on “Make the hard things simple, and the simple things occasionally surprisingly hard

  1. Chris Hill

    All really good feedback, and it just shows that the OSM front page has never been through UI testing that has been seriously followed up. I *HATE* with a passion that stupid + that OpenLayer provides. OL is wonderful, clever, sophisticated, powerful and has a really crap way of showing the layers. I like the OSM style used to create the Mapnik page, but there are lots of others around. A few few are hidden behind the stupid OL ‘+’ (did I mention that I hate that thing?) but we need access to many more. The “I’m not linking to something outside OSM” mentality has stood in the way too long.

    2012 really does seem like the year or OSM, a new front page (that might not have a map in sight!!) might just do us a power of good. Map editors are our most precious resource, so lets focus on them, not the map. Lets give them a clue how to start without sending them to the horrible wiki. Lets show people the data is there to be used and how to do that, oh and by the way, we have a map, if you’re interested.

    Your insights, Andy, might (hopefully) stir up a change.

    Potlatch (and JOSM) presets are immensely powerful. I’m seeing oneway=no popping up all over based on a PL2 preset that I’d rather not see. Lots of thought needs to go into presets and the effect they have, which happens now and needs to continue. They are the real powerhouse in deciding what tags get used, not the wiki.

  2. Tilman Brock

    @Chris: I do not agree with “Lets show people the data is there to be used and how to do that, oh and by the way, we have a map, if you’re interested.”. For a lot of people, the mapnik rendering is OSM. I would hazard a guess that >80% of OSM users just want to take a look at the map. Maybe we need to adress that (i.e. getting more “viewers” to participate), but I would keep the presentation at the current “Here is the map, and by the way, you can do lots of other things with the data”.

    Concerning presets you are absolutely right.

  3. Michal Migurski

    @Tilman: All of this is relatively meaningless without some data to support what OSM wants people to do. Let’s say that 80% is an accurate guess: is that a perception that OSM.org wants to support and encourage, or is it the job of OSM.org to get people editing the thing? My feeling is that a home page mostly covered in a giant map does a great job of reinforcing the notion that OpenStreetMap is a crappier version of Google Maps, and that the experience should be better adapted the needs of prospective editors.

  4. Tom Chance

    Goodness, we do go in circles, don’t we?

    Andy, another great post on usability given credibility by the fact that you get on and fix things. Thank you.

    The lesson I have taken away from various attempts to help less technically capable people use OSM is that are missing a generalised or easily-deployed interface like wheelmap.org to enable very low-skill edits. Once a geek has got all the basic geometry in place, maintaining metadata about new one way restrictions and adding missing metadata about shop names shouldn’t require such a powerful interface as Potlatch 2.

    On layers and the near-invisible “+”, I simply made the dialogue open by default on OpenEcoMaps.

    The wider issues just show our web sites are a mess, always have been, and after years of interminable discussions and prototypes I would gladly donate to a Andy-The-Benevolent-Homepage-Dictator fund, paying you to spend a few weeks just sorting the thing out in whatever way you see fit so long as it is consistent and usable.

  5. Steve Bennett

    > It’s still unclear how to start drawing lines and areas. In fact, most people accidentally start drawing lines, and press escape, without realising later on when they want to draw one that they already know how.

    Solution, clear modes: “draw line”, “draw POI”, “moving stuff”, etc. See the Google My Maps (or whatever they call it now) interface.

    > People want to add icons to points of interest that are already drawn, but as an area. Maybe we should symbolize areas, or even better, prevent icons from being dropped onto existing areas with the same tags.

    Just to double check: they know it’s already there as an area, they just want to see an icon on top of it as well? What kinds of areas? Ones without (rendered) names?

    > People get mightily confused when the icons on the map don’t match the icons on the sidebar. Maybe we need to rethink how the sidebar icons appear.

    Examples? It would be pretty easy to fix some of these.

    > Creating other points of interest is hard to figure out (i.e. double-click).

    Yeah. Maybe the default way to create a POI would be to single click and get a pop up. Drawing a way would require you to switch to a “draw way” mode as described above.

    > If you have a large named area, it can be non-obvious (especially when zoomed in) what’s causing the name to appear.

    Make the name clickable? Don’t render areas at all if they would be greater than X% of the screen? (Not as silly as it sounds – if you’re working on a picnic area, you don’t really want to see the entire national park…)

    > There’s useful shortcuts (like J) that don’t appear in the help.

    An extra hideable toolbar showing keystrokes?

    > There’s lots of useful actions that don’t have any GUI for them, unless you count documenting the keypresses on the 8th tab of the Help menu!

    Yep, and they also give no feedback when you use them. (I think I raised a Trac bug for this.) Maybe when you float over something, after a few seconds, you get a prompt of possible actions?

    > One person couldn’t figure out panning the map around while editing. That’s a combination of no buttons, and that if you (tentatively) click on the background, something happens (start drawing a way), so you learn not to click on the background. Of course, to pan the map you need to mousedown to drag it.

    A “pan mode” (alongside draw way, create POI etc) would help. Looks like a hand.

    > I’ve never seen anyone using the Potlatch 2 search button, but people often use the main search bar while editing. That often leads to pain when they click on the results.

    What search button? Whoa…just spent ages searching through the GUI to see what you might be talking about, found it after about 5 minutes. Heh. Looks somewhat useful, but would be much better embedded in different places for context (eg, searching for a a relation in the “select relation” dialog).

  6. Rostranimin

    Spot on.

    So at the beginning OSM is a project all about getting new data – mapping the world. Information and help and websites are sensibly all targetted at committed and interested people willing to devote days or years to the whole thing because of their passion.

    In those circumstances we tolerate the clumsy irritating stuff because we have to…

    But now we have areas (like my own home city, and indeed much of the UK) where the map data is BETTER than available on other mapping sites. So I want to refer ordinary folk on to OSM. But we do everything possible to put them off.

    Until we get things right for these users – not map makers, just people wanting to see a map, we have little hope of getting OSM to be more used than at present I think. Which would be fine, but I rather thing that it won’t be long until the commercial providers in lots of places catch up. The little things which make OSM so wonderful for map users will be taken up by other providers – and we lose a key source of new map users and consequently new map makers.

    I did a very brief very simple user test a few weeks ago, just to see…

    Test subject is an avid map user. Says that a mapping application on her home computer is the next most used application in hours spent on it after web browser. Familiar with using gps devices. Technically competent (job involves databases and statistics and related programming, degree in science subject).

    Subject: OK, it’s a map
    Me: Test it
    Subject:OK, I’ll search for where I live using my postcode (UK)
    OSM: fails to locate her street (for good technical reasons to do with postcode information in UK)
    Subject:Well I don’t think much of that. I’ll search for my street
    OSM: effective
    Subject: OK, what about directions, I often ask for those… hmm, can’t see how to do that… try help
    OSM: displays help centre forum
    Subject: !!!£££###, what’s that. Can’t be bothered with that, would now return to Google Maps
    Me: For these purposes please stick with it – try the ‘documentation’ link
    Subject: I’m put off again by all this stuff – seems to be for map makers, not me, let’s try ‘beginners guide’ – no that’s more about making maps – again, can’t be bothered to do any more
    Me: Again, stick with it. Try the link to ‘some of the many other services’
    (I’m interested in this one because I’ve been arguing that we improve it for users like her)
    Subject: No, still too offputting. Looks like I’d understand this if I could be bothered, but all this stuff about disclaimers is offputting, and I’m no nearer answering my original question – once again, I’d return to Google Maps or alternatives.

    So a long winded way to say that if we’re not able to suck a user like her into OSM we have no hope with ordinary folk.

    What gets me is that changing this I don’t think is complicated (given the aforementioned dictatorship). She needs to know some key things very very quickly – like that there are loads of different maps to choose from. She perhaps needs to quickly see some examples. Then she needs some basic simple welcoming help on just using OSM – not on mapping, just on how to use the whole thing.

    Then, and only then, should be be emphasising that she can change the map. And we can introduce her to one of the friendlier guides to doing so (most of which also need a little bit of work).

    So how do we get this kind of thing to happen on OSM. I’ve tried with individual bits of documentation, but it seems that 90% of other users are so familiar with OSM that they can’t see this problem. Individually I don’t suppose we can do much – are there no groups working on usability?

  7. Wes Groleau

    “missing a generalised or easily-deployed interface like wheelmap.org to enable very low-skill edits.” I am a “geek” (software enigneer more than three decades) but I am not very motivated to _add_ data to OSM. However, I would like to correct things without having to spend fifteen minutes reading documentation (after fifteen or thirty finding out where the documentation is). Yes, documentation is easy to find–if you are willing to accept any doc instead of that doc that actually contains the bit you are looking for. OK, now that my diplomatic skills have alienated everyone that might have wanted to help–is there a Q&A place or Usenet group for me to ask a question and get flamed for my lack of RTFM?

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