10 Steps to Making the Perfect Digital Map

Not long ago, maps were just a means of projecting the physical environment. Today, pretty much anything we can think of can be accessed through a digital map.

Maps are everywhere. We have adopted location as one of the most important characteristics of digital information—to the extent that even though the number of map-based services is on the rise, only a few of them are actually of any use.

So what is it with these maps, what are they good for? First it was just the physical environment (what shape or characteristics do our surroundings have), then objects in space (where something is located or how to get there). Now maps can be used to illustrate anything from the laws of nature to the underlying mechanisms of urban systems (earthquakes, ufo-sightings, freedom and so on).

From showing where something is located, maps have involved into interactive services that let the user decide what kind of content they actually portray. Many map-based services can make life easier and even save lives, but making them is a skill—dumping your data on a map does not necessarily make it any more useful. If you are thinking about making one and want it to be successful, this is what you have to consider first.

Which problem does your map solve?

Before making a map you have to know how it improves what you are doing already. Does it bring any additional value to you, your client or your targeted user? Do you already know your users? When, how and why would they use your map?

When you are designing a map, these are the elements you need to consider: user, content, context.

You also have to define whether you are talking about location-based data, a map-based service or both. Would it be enough to open your data and let anyone use it as they please, or do you want to make and maintain the map-based service too? What kind of resources will the maintenance require, and what are you expecting to get in return?

If you come to the conclusion that a map is the right format for you, answer the following questions to get it right.

Know your user

1. Who is your user?

You have to know what kind of users you are targeting and most importantly, which of their needs would your map solve. What will bring them to your service in the first place? Where do your users live? Do you speak their language? Are they using latest smartphones, corporate workstations or custom-made hardware?

2. How well do you know your user?

Are you really sure about your users’ needs? Are you building a new service for your existing users or a new service to attract new users too? How do you get in touch with users that you never dealt with before? How do you know what they really need? How will you get them to contribute to the process?

More than 280 million Tweets posted from mobile phones reveal geographic usage patterns in unprecedented detail. View in full window

3. What do you expect from the user?

What does your user want do with the map? What would you want them to do with it—are there any conflicting interests? Do you want people to use the map itself or somehow access the items shown on the map? Do you want your users to go to a physical location and will you be there for them?

Offer the right content

4. Focus

What information is your user interested in? What value does putting your data on a map bring to your user or to you? Are the users interested in all your data or would a smaller portion be sufficient? In which form and format should the data be presented to make it useful for the user?

5. Filter

How can you filter the information? Is everything shown on the map at once or can you hide or reveal parts of it? Make it simple for the user to display exactly and only what they need. And remember, more filtering options does not necessarily equal better filtering. Often a well implemented search is enough.

6. Interact

How can your user contribute to the map or interact with the system in general? Will there be lists, bookmarks, or likes? What about adding more content or commenting on what others do? Are you dealing with static data or will the system evolve over time through user interactions?

A map-based visualization of global weather conditions. View in full window

7. Have an eye for detail

How do you want to display your data? What would serve the purpose best—do you need static markers, lines, colored areas or something more novel? How many visible markers will there be simultaneously? If you end up with a hundred markers on one screen, you probably need to divide your content into smaller chunks.

Think out of the map

8. Know your limits

What is the scale of your service, how big of an audience are you expecting? Will there be 100 or 100.000 people using the map during the day? Where do they come from and does that affect the design—does it make a difference if you are using it from Malaysia or Sweden? Are there any technological bottlenecks in your service?

9. Design for the future

Think about the maintenance. Who will take care of the service once the first version is out? Will you need someone to update the source code, produce more content or both? On how regular of a basis? How long can you survive without any maintenance? Are you relying on technology that is fading out?

10. Iterate

Make sure it works. Test, gather feedback and learn from your mistakes. Break your project down into smaller parts and be prepared to revise your plans if something is not working out as expected. Leave room for small adjustments and be ready for constant action (do not expect a digital service ever to become completely ready).

Putting it all together

We believe a professionally made map can say more than a thousand pictures. It all comes down to the question, whether the map brings real added value to its user or not—for instance by making it easier to find the way, understand complex information or by some other means.

Which problem will your map solve? Is it a tool for navigation, analysis or something else?

After answering the questions above, we have an additional one for you: Are you still sure you need a map? Is it essential to know where something is located? And well, do you really need a map for that?

If your answer is still a yes, we better talk.


To hire me, request an appearance or discuss a project, please contact me via jyrki@jyrkivanamo.com, +358 50 547 0020 or LinkedIn.

With kind regards,

Signature of Jyrki Vanamo