The Great American Road Trip is all about the open road, endless vistas, neverending forests, twisty coastlines, National Parks, small towns, and jagged mountain ranges, all viewed while driving a big, fuel-inefficient American automobile, preferably a convertible. Occasionally, depending on the type of trip, a map is necessary. Sadly Google Maps, with its deep location data and its navigational tools, is frustrating to use on the road, mostly because relies way too much on a consistent data connection and it is practically impossible to use the app without one. It’s almost as if Google has never taken Maps on a real road trip, outside the greater urban area where strong data connections are available everywhere all the time.
Maps is the quintessential on-the-go mobile app, one that users access time and time again. It cannot rely so intensely on always having a high-speed data connection. Just for context, I was driving through New England, not exactly a sparsely-populated desert. Yet at many points throughout the drive, such as the town-every-few-miles coast of Maine and the highly traveled Route 100 in Vermont, there was no connectivity to be had.
Instead of ranting, I’d like to suggest a few product tweaks for a potential map offline mode that go beyond what was presented at Google’s recent I/O conference.
- Update travel time constantly. The most asked question on any road trip is “are we there yet” and right now Maps can give a reliable answer when searching for a place but only when connected. What happens when a route is already mapped out and the user has already traveled a portion of it? Well, then it becomes a truly unwieldy two steps backwards and two steps forward maneuver: start with the map view with the current route displayed and the original estimated travel time, back to the route selection screen, back to the destination selection screen, forward to the route selection, which generally stays the same except that now the time displayed is the estimated travel time from the current location. Now, wouldn’t it just be easier to constantly keep the time to destination updated? Even in offline mode, just calculate how much time has elapsed since the original calculation. After all, it’s an estimate users are looking for. It’s also extremely irritating when connectivity is lost during any one of these steps as now users are left without any estimate and without a route. Which leads me to…
- Keep a route history, at least the last one but preferably the last few. Then allow users to access them without a connection. That way if a connection is lost when a user is trying to compare two searches or trying to search for another location.
- Allow new map searches when a route is marked. This will allow searching for, say, coffee along the current route. Right now every search feature is disabled when a route is selected, which is frustrating. Why must users “turn off” the route to use other map features? It also allows users to see what is on the way to their destination and not miss attractions or cafes.
- Allow viewing of saved locations when a route is marked. Right now users can see the stars but not the names of the places they represent.
I’ve already mentioned these two suggestions before but I still feel they are necessary:
- Different colors for saved places. I tend to mark recommended food such as bakeries and cafes in areas I might find myself in. I also save attractions and places I want to see. Even with just those two categories, it would help immensely to set different colored stars for each group.
- A short note with each saved place. Let users write why they saved a place, where they saw the recommendation, or perhaps what they’d like to do there.
Going back to Google’s recent Maps announcement at I/O, even though those offline features sound amazing, they haven’t been released yet. My impression was that the offline search and navigation were to be available only countries where data connectivity was weak everywhere, not just spotty as in the US. Regardless, it’s time to wean Maps from the luxury of an always-available data connection.