Are maps better than text for presenting information on mobile devices? That was the question explored by Karen Church, Joachim Neumann, Mauro Cherubini and Nuria Oliver in a paper (about to be) presented at the WWW 2010 conference, they present evidence that in some cases a textual display of information supports people’s information needs more effectively than a map-based one.
The two interfaces were evaluated over the course of a month of use “in the wild” (but in Ireland, not in in Spain). Each participant had access to both interfaces, and was shown how to use them to ask location-specific questions, which would be answered by others nearby. Availability of answers was communicated via SMS messages.
The study found that people were more likely to ask questions in the map view, but to answer them in the text view. They were also more likely to request additional details in the text view. The paper presents a thorough discussion of details of use of the various tools from interviews and other data collected during the study.
Not surprisingly, they find that some of the preferences were due to individual differences. Other findings included that people in unfamiliar locations preferred maps to textual descriptions, that the textual interface was preferred when consuming information whereas the map was preferred when requesting it, that text was preferred when specifying locations approximately, whereas the map was preferred for more precise specifications.
These results provide additional evidence that task context matters, and that no single interface, no matter how intuitive or obvious, is necessarily the right representation. Designers should pay attention to what representative users actually do, rather than assuming that a particular representation will always be the best. Finally, this paper presents a good case study of how a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods, of system building and of wizard-of-Oz simulation, can produce interesting and nuanced results that would be difficult to obtain by any particular method.