Tools that extend our senses : maps as a point of entry to explore the city around us

Posted on March 19, 2009. Filed under: Cognition, Design, English, maps, Medias, Search |

I recently had the opportunity to come back to Marshall McLuhan’s 1964 book “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man“. Although his definition of media is quite large, it reminds us that the main function of a tool is to extend a man’s abilities (this is what differentiates us from most animals), and as such it acts as a mediator between us and the surrounding world, to probe, manipulate and act upon what it tells our senses. Authors like Howard Rheingold in “Tools for Thought“, adapted and extended this vision to modern computer tools as an extension of thought.

As we come up with new tools, design (see Don Norman’s book “The Design of Everyday Things“) tells us to build upon learned behaviors, or affordances. Don Norman uses the term to refer to the “perceived and actual properties of the thing, primarily those fundamental properties that determine just how the thing could possibly be used. A chair affords (“is for”) support and, therefore, affords sitting…/… Plates are for pushing. Knobs are for turning. Slots are for inserting things into.”

In a way Google’s and Apple’s success is due to their adaptation of natural affordances to new uses. They did not invent those affordances, they “merely” did a very good marketing and engineering job. Now a “white box” affords search and a”touch weel” affords folder navigation.

Good design


As we develop more and more mobile phone applications with an internet access, what would be the best affordances ? I am not talking about complex “mind amplification” applications, but just simple applications like city guides for example. How should such applications be designed ? for instant use in mobility (“now we’re all together, where shall we eat ?”) or planning (“I want to book a restaurant with a terrasse for Sunday brunch”) ? Should we go for search or folder navigation affordances ? Or is there another, more adapted one based on visual interfaces like tagclouds, geographical maps, network maps, …, or interactive interfaces like multi-touch, point/click, buttons, etc… ?

Let’s have a look and test 2 iPhone city guides, applications that offer restaurants listings and recommandations. The first one is Michelin’s recent iPhone app (disclaimer : I was offered to test it by Michelin, which is good since it is quite expensive), and the second one is TellMeWhere (or Dismoiou in French). But first let’s have a look at their “desktop web” welcome page :


Welcome Page

The comparison is not fully adequate since Michelin doesn’t really have an online version (it is available only as books) and this one is the promotional website for the 100th edition, but it shows clearly that TellMeWhere has done the choice of the list, whereas Michelin couldn’t decide and offered both the search box and the map. A quick A/B test would have let them know which one was the most appropriate and therefore improve the bounce rate.

The test becomes more interesting for the mobile applications. This what the welcome pages (after the splash screen) look like :

iPhone Welcome page

Both by default used the localization feature of the iPhone and displayed a list of restaurants in the immediate vicinity, but as TellMeWhere went for the map, Michelin stayed with the list … One of the reasons being probably that having less restaurants listed (since it is their own selection), they did not want to go for a map where for a given scale only a limited choice would be available. But this probably for other reasons as well since maps are almost not used in the application. But before we get to that, let’s have a look at the “alternative” welcome page :


iPhone alternative welcome page

 TellMeWhere offers to turn off the localization, and to choose betwen a list and a map interface. Michelin offers different choices : a list of restaurants in the vicinity, or near a given address (most probably trying to leverage their ViaMichelin maps and routes user base and application, or – a third option – the list of recent restaurants consulted.

So now, what do the item (restaurant) page look like ?

Restaurant page

Here again the editorial choices are clear : while TellMeWhere puts the social recommandation forward directly on the page, and chose a colourful design (including a picture that can be added by the users themselves from the web or via the iPhone camera), Michelin stayed loyal to the design of the book version, enhancing its elite position, but – revolution !! – allowing for recommandations from users !!! We’re impatient to know more about how many people actually do it, but we’ve seen from other ‘elite’ brands (such as newspaper LeMonde) that such openings are really powerful attractors if they can manage it. A little adition that we’ve noted on he Michelin application (but that also exist on the TellMeWhere one, although not as intuitive and extended), is the possibility to contact / locate and know more (via its website) about the restaurant.

In conclusion I would say that both apps are nicely designed, but that the challenges are different :

  • for Michelin to master the art of community management whithout endangering its brand equity
  • for TellMeWhere to reach a critical mass of users and improve/extend its applicatio’s functionnalities (they’ve implemented a “feedback” module for co-design on the web, using Feedback2.0 platform, a French alternative of GetSatisfaction)

And that from a design and usability perspective, we still need some hard data to know which affordance is the best 🙂 Being a “map” man, I know some do not like using them …but that’s another story 🙂



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