UX challenge: Update Google Maps for women walking home at night
Updated: Aug 4
Commuter apps help us navigate unknown spaces, but also find the best route for getting from point A to point B. Google Maps is one of the most popular commuter apps, let’s take a look at one of their routes and see if we can make any improvements.
The commuter app space is flooded with different options, competing for market share by outpricing each other. Thanks to this model each option coming to market follows roughly the same format.
One of the commonalities between these apps is falling for the trope of ideal situations. This means they are often not designed for real-world use, as how often are conditions perfect? If this causes us grief on our commutes too many times it erodes our trust is these apps. They should be designed for the real-world, or not at all.
Google maps is the preferred navigation app, six times more popular than its closest competitor. However, it could deliver more. Below I will discuss issues that arise when using Google Maps, plus ideal solutions and potential design solutions.
Google Maps is moving towards offering more personalisation and accessibility. Last year it added a feature for wheelchair users. At the same time a competitor Rudder released a new navigation solution to help with walker safety, something Google Maps is currently missing. By adding a similar feature it could solidify their place as market leaders and mean users don’t need a second app.
Refining further, I’ve defined five key issues for Google Maps:
There is no weather update. If a route is going to take 90 minutes to walk it should clearly rain is forecast to begin after 20 minutes.
It prioritises speed over safety. If a person is walking at night, or in an unfamiliar space, it will map the fastest route rather than the best route for real world conditions. This means instead of walking along busy roads it can send people through construction, poorly lit parks or alleyways for the sake of being five minutes faster.
Limited customisation. There is no clear way to customise each user’s top menu.
Missing learning opportunities. There is no feature to show that you’re exploring a new city, record routes you have taken before or offer different walking paths based on popular attractions.
After identifying the problems I pinned them all on the wall and began to brainstorm ways the user journey's that would be impacted. I spoke with users to validate some of the assumptions I was making. Some of the ideas were better, some were worse, some problems had more ideas or users, and some had less. I prioritised solutions from the initial session which are simple to implemented and settled on this list:
Using information from Google Weather, the walking icon can be switched for a person holding an umbrella to indicate when rain is expected.
When travelling at night, show alternative better-lit routes through more populated areas, alongside the fastest route. Accurate travel times should be shown for all options.
Add the ability to save preferences. For example, if someone always wants to see wheelchair accessible routes this would become a menu option, or being able to remove the car option for those who don’t have a vehicle.
As someone explores a new city their map of the area would save routes they have walked and highlight tourist attractions. This could even be followed up with marketing communications, showing a map of the trip with familiar streets walked and options for relevant T-shirts or prints.
Concepts of a new experience options on Google Maps
I decided to explore personalising the walking routes in Google Maps, by adding a feature to highlight well-lit routes. This involves both visualising how the solution would look and how it could improve the user experience.
The problem chosen
How to provide users with the option to choose a well-lit route home?
The final concept
After sketching different ideas, here is the concept I believe would be the most successful.
This is not just from the user’s perspective, but also for the business’ return on investment. Due to the general popularity of Google maps users would not need to download a new app to use this feature. It would also be useful from a branding perspective by maintaining the position of Google as a market leader in solving problems.
Reflection and potential issues
There are always better, smarter ways to execute a solution, but we don't always have time to find these solutions. Below I have listed some potential pitfalls to the answer above.
This is solving a problem that exists, in part, due to the dependence on Google Maps. Before Google Maps a user wouldn’t necessarily have the information about the exact amount of time a detour might take to stay on a well-lit path. Does this build a greater dependency on Google Maps, creating a higher risk?
What happens if a route is no longer lit, or there is disruption? How do we ensure these routes are reliably lit?
Will it cause users to be less aware of their personal safety? Does lighting really make us safer or does it just make us feel safer?
Can this be weaponised, in the terms of an unsavoury character being able to predict preferred walking routes? Or where it will be unlit?
What are the legal responsibilities to the business if the path is not lit?
Could this be seen as victim blaming? When the safety of a person, most commonly a woman, is seen as their own responsibility rather than the fault of the person committing the act of harm to them.
Where to next
I believe the next step would be customisation of the transportation option menu. This would mean being able to add or remove the options needed. A wheelchair user’s partner could have an option saved for wheelchair routes, but not always turned on. In the example above the user has removed the car option and added well-lit routes as an option instead.
Options to go further:
Preference centres for light and dark mode
Jogging vs walking
A calorie counter to promote walking or cycling
Buddy system to link up with your friends
What are your thoughts on these ideas to improve the experience? Do you have any other ideas? Maybe you see something that can be enhanced or replaced with another type of solution?
Thank you for your time.