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"This blog is updated by the JISC funded G3 Project (#jisc3g) team. We are building an framework for teaching and communicating relevant geographic concepts and data to learners from outside the world of geography and GIS. We think this blog will be of particular interest to those working or teaching in HE and FE and those interested in teaching and learning and e-learning."

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Tuesday, 12 July 2011

GIS are still hard to use! The interface design of a desktop GIS ensures they are NOT easy to learn....

Desktop Geographical Information Systems (GIS) are not user friendly they require time and effort to learn and remember. They are not intuitive and for new learners the first time they are faced with a GIS can be overwhelming experience, where do you start? These difficulties are nicely summarised in the user interviews I have been conducting.

One of our specialist users described their first and so far only encounter with a GIS. They were looking to just explore what the software could do – without being able to dedicate any real time to learning it. They successfully downloaded some geographically referenced data from Digimap (it was actually MasterMap). They then started the GIS programme and spent 5 to 10 minutes trying to open the data that had just obtained, in that time they did not succeed to open the data so they gave up and made their map in Photoshop. They found GIS too difficult to use. From a usability perspective this represents an issue in learnability. The design of the desktop GIS meant that the new learner failed in the first hurdle- adding existing geographical data to a map.

The notion that desktop GIS are hard to use is not new. More than 15 years ago in 1995 Traynor and Williams discussed the issues of usability in GIS presenting a paper with the title, "Why Are Geographical Information Systems hard to use?" at the annual ACM conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. Link

Today, desktop GIS are still just as difficult to use!! The interface design really does not make them easy to learn. Will this change as the development of VGI web-mapping interfaces progresses since they rely on contributions by the general public?


  1. "They were looking to just explore what the software could do – without being able to dedicate any real time to learning it." Is this a reasonable expectation? My feelings are divided between the idea that such a wish somehow lacks respect for the capabilities of GIS, and a recognition of the frustration sometimes associated with simple operations. (If I am honest I think there is also a feeling that, as an experienced GIS user, part of me doesn't like the idea that someone should be able to easily pick up what I have worked for years to learn!)

    What do things like Digimap Roam and ArcGIS Online bring to the discussion about complexity and interface design? What could desktop GIS learn from them and why is it currently different? For someone who just wants to "explore the capabilities", are they more appropriate?

  2. Related to what Katy said, do you think there is a conflict between tools/software with lots of advanced abilities and uses, and software being usable as soon as it's opened.
    For example I've played many games without reading the instructions (having to guess the controls a/s/d/w or left/right/down/up), but I wouldn't use some brain surgery kit without doing some learning first, even though I can imagine what I want the finished result to be.