Seeking a path between the traditions and detail which have defined Ordnance Survey maps and the changing needs of a new generation of users accustomed to digital mapping, Ben Scott-Robinson explains the challenges faced across user research, prototyping and the design of OS’ new digital experiences. The talk looks at the balance between detail and simplicity, techniques for seeing beyond what users say to understand what they really need, and how design can add a sense of lasting value to a user experience.
Ben Scott-Robinson returned to MEX in March 2015 to give this talk. He has a long history in the MEX community, having been chosen as MEX Innovator of the Year at the inaugural 2008 MEX Awards with his prototype phone for partially-sighted users. As Head of Interactive Experience at Ordnance Survey, the UK’s mapping agency, he is part of a team creating beautiful things with the world’s best maps, including the award winning Resilience Direct product for the Cabinet Office, and the life saving OS Locate mobile app. He is also a tutor for Google’s Squared Online digital innovator course. Prior to this, he has founded two agencies, two consultancies and an app start-up. He has held the role of Creative Director, Experience Director, Head of Innovation, and Head of Brilliant. He has been in the Drum Magazine’s Mobile Top 50 for two years running, and last year was #23 in the Digerati Top 100. But it’s not all talk: he likes to get his hands dirty creating user experiences and conceptual creative for products and interactive brand narratives as well. Over the years he has built brands, campaigns, apps, sites, games, and a bottle opener that looked like a submarine.
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- Maps traditionally create a sense of emotive engagement with place. However, the mechanistic nature of digital maps has eroded that emotional link.
- Ordnance Survey has a multi-faceted challenge: its traditional customers are ageing and declining as an addressable market. However, those who remain are strongly attached to the conventions of the existing paper mapping products. The new, growing market of younger customers has a different set of benchmarks for mapping products, having grown up using the likes of Google Maps.
- Initial user research revealed a set of needs different to those in most digital mapping products. For instance, customers wanted to know what trail conditions were like and whether they could provide an alternative route across country, away from marked paths.
- One of the fundamental evolutions for Ordnance Survey has been about changing from physical maps which are static to a certain moment in time – and therefore acquire the patina of artefacts and memories – to a digital metaphor, where users are accustomed to the notion of the map being updated in real-time and, indeed, cannot necessarily be trusted to be the same from day-to-day. Google Maps, for instance, is inherently driven by advertising and therefore must be understood to have a certain set of priorities.
- Ordnance Survey decided on two narratives to guide its future developments: a story about elegant complexity, where it would deliberately knock back visual effects and prioritise an experience which did not overwhelm users; and the characteristic of emotive mapping, which evolved digital mapping from the functional to the memorable.
- Innovation can be challenging in an organisation with a strong heritage like Ordnance Survey. This required strong discipline within the development teams to push the exploration of new things. For instance, the teams tried things like intense and rapid 1 day sessions where they removed the map content altogether from the equation, and instead had participants focus on new interaction types, leading to the development of 16 new interaction sets. In others, they maintained separate tracks around the evolution of map content and the digital interaction design of the app, before gradually bringing them together.
- Overcoming user bias in research was a significant problem throughout, not least because existing users had strong attachment to existing products. They tried various strategies, including screening systems based around Briggs-Myers models, but it remained hard and became a question of judgement.
- Paper to digital prototyping tools like Marvel helped them to keep iterating at a rapid rate, but there was an internal challenge of helping people to remain objective about new features and changes, and not becoming attached to specific prototypes.
- Organisational buy-in grew as they were able to share the results of user reactions to new versions: everyone could understand improvements in customer sentiment.
- Enhancements went beyond the visual to include techniques like using black backgrounds, which consume less power on OLED-screen smartphones, to maximise battery life – a major concern for users.