How Cartographers Make Maps Easy To Read

Maps contain a huge amount of information, and as such they are a usability nightmare. Making maps easy to read is a challenge that cartographers struggle with constantly.
A lot of research has gone into making maps more readable. One area that gets a lot of attention is eye movement. Technology makes it pretty easy for usability scientists to track eye movement, but understanding the data that is gathered can be difficult. Eye movement tracking equipment can give a rough idea of where people are fixing their attention, but on a densely packed map the spot that is being stared at might not always be the spot which contains the symbol the reader is looking at.
When someone is searching for a location name, it appears that they simply read every single name they come across on the map. They aren’t looking for names that look similar to the name in question, just “reading” the map, although they did linger longer on places that looked similar to the place they were looking for. Maps with large fonts used for place names were found easier to scan than ones with smaller fonts.
Densely packed, detailed street maps were found to be harder to read than abstracted illustrated maps. This is a classic case of information overload, and is part of the reason that tourist offices offer both types of map. A day-tripper may want a simple map that will help them navigate the general area of the city. Someone that needs to get to a specific place that is more “off the beaten track” might find an illustrated map lacks the detail required to find that one specific location. It’s not practical to abstract every map, and detailed road maps do have value for specific needs, but illustrated maps are generally far more usable.

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