What is Mapping in Good Product Design and User Experience?
Whether we are shaking them peaches to Justin Beiber’s Peaches or feeling forlorn to the tune of Kabira, we have all turned up the volume to our favourite song playing on the radio. This turning up of the volume has almost become a subconscious action - turn right to increase or left to decrease. You do not have to stop and pause to recall which action to take. This seemingly natural and subconscious action is all thanks to the principle of mapping. Here, the volume is controlled either by turning a dial or pressing a button.
The word mapping is derived from the word ‘map’ which originates from mappa mundi. Mappa means napkin or cloth (on which maps were drawn), and mundi means ‘of the world.’ Hence, a map is essentially a geographical representation of a part or whole earth. The term was used in the figurative sense as a detailed representation of anything from the 1600s. In mathematics, the term signifies the relationship between elements of two sets.
In product design, the principle of mapping refers to the relationship between a product’s controls and how it affects user experience. For example, the relationship between a switchboard and appliances in a room, like lights, fans and consumer electronics, is a typical example of mapping. Each switch is directly connected to an appliance, which is evident when we flick the switch. But for an appliance like a fan, there are two elements to map - the switch and the regulator. Mapping tells us which control is connected to what action on the product.
The controls that are connected to the subsequent action should evidently correlate as closely as possible. For example, the vertical scroll bar tells you where you are on a page. And as you drag it down, the page moves at the same rate. Here, the control and effect are closely mapped. When you turn a steering wheel left, it turns the car left. Or turning the bike handle left turns it in the same direction. This is natural mapping which leads to an immediate understanding of the system. It requires no elaborate understanding of the system - left relates to left, and right to right. This requires no labels, as the control would be exactly where it says it will be.
But the ground reality is not always that. Do you remember the episode from FRIENDS where Phoebe thought she was controlling the TV by blinking her eyes and going, “I am doing it! I am doing it!” While it was Monica from the other apartment flicking the switch to nothing, to her dismay. This tells us that the controls should, at the very least, be in proximity to the function they are controlling. In this case, natural mapping depends on mindful spatial arrangement, where the consequence of using a control should be visible while using it.
Therefore, mapping is an important part of the design and layout of control systems. It involves spatial thinking, where the layout of controls and their connection to the devices is through an optimal pathway.
While mapping is functional, like the turning of a steering wheel, it can be learned through the use of products and contexts. This is called learned mapping that occurs when something is not necessarily intuitive or natural, but the actions become expected through repeated interactions with a product. The twisting of a glue stick is an example of learned mapping. It is understood that when we twist the glue stick, it will either extend or retract. Here, the twist does not relate to the movement of the stick, but we have used it so many times that we expect it. Thus, mapping is not entirely dependent on the accuracy of the controls as long as they provide a clear way of remembering and understanding the map itself.
Mapping is heavily influenced by spatial analogies of architecture. The above statement can be extended to the concept of mind mapping, often used by us to remember places through landmarks, nodes, and other visual elements. This method uses a point-of-view perception of a person in their area of interaction. A similar and advanced form of mental mapping was introduced in the hit BBC series Sherlock Holmes as the Mind Palace (or the mind attic, in the original books). It is essentially a memory technique that uses spatial characteristics of an imaginary space to remember and store information.
Mapping can be both functional and cultural. Sign language uses the visual-manual modality to convey meaning, which is an example of such mapping. Designers can use visual language like colours, icons, and symbols to map controls. The universal use of the on/off icon on products has a clear meaning because we have seen it so many times and learned how to use it. Mapping is also heavily influenced by culture, biology, psychology and grouping. It follows principles of natural perception, natural grouping, patterning of controls and feedback. As products cater to a more global audience, the nuanced understanding of the cultural market takes priority in mapping. Hence, a cross-cultural design presents complex challenges that are both linguistic and cultural for a designer.
For example, when Amazon launched its website in 2018, it faced a serious problem due to a lack of cultural insight. They realised that Indian users were not using their primary driver for revenue which was searching for products on the homepage. It was later revealed that the magnifying glass icon was not something they associated with searching. The people assumed the icon represented a ping pong paddle! So, as a solution, Amazon kept the magnifying glass but added a search field/bar with a Hindi text label to inform people where they could initiate the search. Here, the marker of control (search/search bar) failed to connect to the action. A simple solution of adding a search bar (a clear indicator) and the Hindi text as a cultural indicator solved their problem. The pitfall here is that most designers falsely assume that designing products for different cultures simply requires language translation and updating a few images to represent the local culture. It is thus pertinent to map objects based on similar characteristics, patterns, and groups.
“You see, but you do not observe.” — "A Scandal in Bohemia" (1891), Sherlock Holmes
Observation is the most powerful and fundamental skill of a designer that helps one understand the audience they are designed for. The problem Monica encountered is not new. Though switches have been around for centuries, have we really optimized the mapping outcome? How many times have we tried a few light switches before finding the right one in an unfamiliar room? So the switchboard and its mapping fail in regard to human-centred design. Users expect these controls to be intuitive or familiar. Hence, good mapping of a product is achieved when the result corresponds to user expectations. These expectations can be understood, enhanced and mapped by analysing the insights gained into the cultural factors. These then lead to a product that matches the user's needs.
About the Writer
Malika Vaidya is an architect and writer. She is the Co-Founder of Architecture Pulse, a blog that explores the intersection of architecture and society. She is a graduate of the Rachna Sansad’s Academy of Architecture (AoA), Mumbai. She has interned at One Habitat Studio and The Origin.
About the Editor
Vishwa Balani is an English Literature graduate from St. Xavier's College, Ahmedabad and MS University, Baroda. She has been associated with CEPT University for two and a half years now where she has taught writing to students across various courses. Her tryst with language began very early in life and it has continued no matter which field she chooses to work in. She likes experimental writing but also believes in grammar, and the Oxford comma.
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