Design great web mapping apps

In this post, we’ll focus on methods for building external facing web sites.  Often, the immediate approach is to create a single application to solve all ‘spatial’ needs of an organisation on the web.  As the web has evolved, this mechanism is becoming harder to implement.  Harder, because the expectation for spatial content in many web based initiatives is greater.  So how do you create compelling online applications that are fit for purpose and don’t grow to become bloated button heavy behemoths that users look at and sigh!

The answer is design.  Just like you design your home, you should design your web presence.  I liken it to creating a garden.  There are two approaches.

The first is to sit down, decide on the variables and carefully map out how they will work in your space.  During the design, you take into consideration many factors like sunlight, visible aesthetics, access, the list goes on.  Depending on your artistic capability, you may outsource this part of the process and work with a contractor to come up with your design concepts.

The second approach is to head down to the local green shop and start buying stuff to throw at your backyard.  Sound familiar?  Now as luck would have it, a lot of people get it kind of right.  Certainly your own creations are beautiful in your own eyes, it’s not until your neighbour pops by that you get the honest appraisal.  Occasionally, you fluke it!

The same can be applied to web sites.  Building from scratch or copying another design can be fraught with danger.  On most occasions you are not the owner of the application.  There will be another department or area within the business that has tasked you with creating an online presence.  As the owner they will have design considerations for you, but from there you are generally, on your own.  So where to start?  What do you need to create a great web site?

The answer is simple.  Build a web site that is visually appealing and does exactly what it says it does.  No more, no less.  Extra features in applications are like the extra helping you really didn’t need.  Tastes good at first, but you pay in the long run from bloat!  Equally as bad, are web sites that say they will do one thing, but deliver something different or sub-standard.  When users come to your web site, they will likely have a few questions on their mind.  Your job is to answer them.  Esri certainly has many features for you to use in your applications.  Should you try to combine them all?  No.  As GIS professionals we have a tool for that called ArcGIS Desktop.  Even Desktop, at times, suffers from having too many features displayed.  I tend to configure my desktop sessions based on what I am doing only exposing the features I need for the task at hand.  Enough of the diversion, and back to web maps!

The first step in the process is discussing the bounds of the application with the owner.  Make sure you understand why the site is being developed, what the site must do/answer, and what information the user will leave the site with when they have finished?  Once you have these questions answered you can begin the design.  During the design process of an application, you must think like the user you will be attracting.  There is some great food for thought in this online article…

When you apply these principles, often the problems of deciding on a technology such as flex, silverlight or javascript will solve themselves.  The choice could be made for you due to your design considerations.

So rather than making your first action a line of code, I implore you to take a step back and start with design!

Ben S

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