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Embracing the Online Platform: Importance of the Interface

Embracing the Online Platform: Importance of the Interface

Recently, we dipped our toes into the pool that is Why should we be employing Web Apps? when talking about Embracing the Online Platform in general. In a time when the world is available at our fingertips (and thumbs), it should be no surprise that this is one of the most popular methods for creating and deploying maps and mapping services. Rather than trying to further convince you of the benefits of employing this approach in your own organization, we would like to take the next few weeks to cover what aspects of this enterprise to which you should be taking especial care.

On this week's docket? The importance of the interface...Better yet, the importance of being able to customize the interface.

When developing or launching a new Web App, there is a lot of room for getting creative. No longer are you constrained to the bounds of a map interface as defined by ArcGIS Desktop or ArcGIS Online. Freedom is a good thing, but it can also be overwhelming when considering all of the options laid at your (and your developer's) feet. First and foremost, no matter the innovation of the Web App, you always want to consider the experience for the end-user. The interface is how he or she will be introduced to your application, view your data, and move around in the map or maps you have provided. It is here you want to focus your attention first.

1. Ensure basic map operations tools are available.

When you open a map for the first time, what is it that you typically do? Pan? Zoom? Identify? These are functions we naturally expect to be present in an application that allows us to view maps. ArcGIS has spoiled us in that aspect and with good right. With that in mind, a solid interface will allow its user the same operations that they would expect in a normal mapping environment.

Several of these operations are shown below with basic tools like: Zoom In/Out, Navigate Extent(s), Measure Areas/Distances, and Identify Features.

2. Consider including more "advanced" tools.

Having the tried and true tools available is a must, but do not let that limit you. Consider functionality your end-user may find useful and include ways to help them accomplish such tasks. We are working outside-of-the-box now, remember?

One way to include this functionality is within the standard toolbar, like is shown below in the NL Nature Atlas. Not only are the standard tools offered, but the user also has the options to Clip and Ship, Export Maps, Download Datasets, and Hide/Show Overview Maps.

The standard toolbar does not have to be the only place you incorporate this type of functionality. The Table of Contents is also a good candidate for adding something special. For instance, the NL Nature Atlas above allows the user to adjust the transparency of a layer with the help of scale bars, helping to view more with less work.

Another example of functionality that can be added to help you and the user make the most of the mapping components within the Web App is introducing markup. Shown below, Integrated Guardian features markup with full text entry defined by customizable font-size, line-width, and more. Offering this option prior to exporting a map layout encourages the user to not only pay closer attention to what is being shown in the layout, but also to ensure what is being saved is truly representative of the data they had intended. I cannot speak for anyone else, but I find that I pay more attention to the maps I produce when I have more of a say in what they look like.

3. Allow users to save their settings.

All of the functionality mentioned thus far is important for consideration, but this is the cream of the crop. What is the point of making all of these changes and adjusting viewpoints if you have no way to keep it that way? Allowing end-users to save their settings is one of the greatest benefits of Web Apps and Web Maps.

This functionality, of course, works best when your interface incorporates user and client profiles in some way. This is the same for web platforms like ArcGIS Online and even the NL Nature Atlas below. The interface allows logged-in clients to save their current map settings. Adjusting the visibility of layers, the transparency of data, the extent of the map frame, and more were not in vain when you can access it later. Once saved, an added bonus is being able to share the content with other users as a group. Remember, sharing is caring.

When developing Web Apps and Web Maps, the components to be included will always depend on the client, project, and circumstance. Never forget to consider who will be using it and how during that process though.

About This Series

These posts provide examples and reasoning for aspects that should be taken into consideration when building Web Applications and Web Maps. Other posts in this series discuss the benefits of the web, user interface features, types and quality of data included, advanced analytics, and reporting.

About the Applications

The below applications are being used to illustrate the concerns mentioned:

Integrated Guardian

Code-name Environmental Effects Data Management System, Integrated Guardian allows easy access to large volumes of past and current data collected for EEM programs. It is designed to be accessible from a web browser and does not require the use of a plug-in.

NCC's Newfoundland and Labrador Nature Atlas

Developed for the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC), the NL Nature Atlas is an online resource for 30+ maps on a variety of topics (e.g., Protected Areas, Rare and Special Plants, Human Footprint, etc.). Each map is embedded on the project's website here and does not require additional plug-ins for use.

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