Academic journal article Cartography and Geographic Information Science

Cognitive and Usability Issues in Geovisualization

Academic journal article Cartography and Geographic Information Science

Cognitive and Usability Issues in Geovisualization

Article excerpt


The previous papers in this issue of CaGIS propose research questions concerning representation, database--geocomputation--visualization links, and interface design that, once answered satisfactorily, promise a host of new methods for visualizing geospatial data. Although the development of such methods is exciting, we argue that users may find these methods difficult to apply, not derive the full benefit from them, or simply not utilize them if we do not consider various cognitive and usability issues. To illustrate, imagine that we develop a tool to assist school children in visualizing how temperature changes in a lake over the course of the year. We develop the tool explicitly for an immersive geospatial virtual environment (immersive GeoVE) because we think that children will develop a better "feel" for spatio-temporal variations in temperature if they are immersed in the lake environment. Although hardware and software exists that could enable development of such a tool, we would have to make decisions on numerous cognitive/usability issues to insure the tool's success: for example, which or CAVE)(1) would be appropriate for children and, for this particular application; what sort of interface would be most appropriate for children; what representation (symbology) would be appropriate for depicting lake temperatures; and how might such decisions vary as a function of a child's age, sex, culture, and other individual characteristics?

We argue that the development of effective geovisualization methods requires a two-pronged effort: theory-driven cognitive research and evaluation of methods via usability engineering principles. Theory-driven cognitive research (in a geospatial context) refers to studies that seek to understand how humans create and utilize mental representations of the Earth's environment, whether obtained via maps or by navigating through the environment. If we can develop theories of how humans create and utilize mental representations of the environment, then we can minimize the need for user testing of specific geovisualization methods. Examples of theory-driven cognitive research include the work of MacEachren (1995) and Lloyd (1997). Related work focuses on cognitive aspects of wayfinding (e.g., Golledge (1999).

Usability engineering is a term used to describe methods for analyzing and enhancing the usability of software (Nielsen 1993; Mayhew 1999).(2) Usability engineers are interested not only in whether software is easy to use, but whether it responds satisfactorily to the tasks that users expect of it. In cartography, the practices of "user testing" and "user studies" have much in common with those of usability engineering. It should be recognized, however, that usability engineering involves both formative and summative evaluation. Formative evaluation is an iterative process that takes place during software development, while summative evaluation is done near the end of software development (Nielsen 1993, p. 170).

In this paper, we consider six major research themes in association with cognitive and usability issues in geovisualization: 1) geospatial virtual environments (GeoVEs); 2) dynamic representations (including animated and interactive maps); 3) metaphors and schemata in user interface design; 4) individual and group differences; 5) collaborative geovisualization; and 6) evaluating the effectiveness of geovisualization methods.(3) In the next section of the paper, we introduce each of these themes and discuss the associated state of the art. In the following section, we present a set of research challenges for each theme that we believe must be tackled if geovisualization methods are to be used effectively.(4)

Research Themes and State of the Art

Geospatial Virtual Environments

It is logical to place GeoVEs first in our list of research themes because immersive GeoVEs fundamentally change our traditional way of acquiring spatial knowledge. …

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