Google Maps and new metadata: when are customized results too much?

Every time I go on a roadtrip I am surprised by new Google Maps features and this recent winter trip was no exception. Maps surprised me with several new features, three that I thought were intriguing. Out of those, two were helpful and timely. The third, well, I’m not sold.

  1. A warning that the destination might be closed within an hour when starting navigation has saved me an unnecessary journey more than once.
  2. “Walk the rest of the way” after parking near a destination, Maps recognizes that I’m no longer driving but still not at my destination so it provides a walking route. Loved this as circling a location looking for parking can be disorienting.
  3. Maps: You visited yesterday. Me: I know.

    Maps: You visited yesterday.
    Me: I know.

    “You visited yesterday” was the one addition I did not really like. It was a reminder that my very precise location is being tracked and was a bit creepy. Additionally, it didn’t offer any benefit – is this something that helps me make a decision? Could a longer time range be beneficial? I might remember where I was yesterday but will I remember where I was 10 years ago? As it’s implemented now, is it offering any benefit to users? That said, Google was (and is) transparent in the use of the feature and explains (by clicking the little ?) what data was used to generate that information and how to disable its collection and future usage.

This brings me to a question that I think should be asked with every feature based on personal user data: is it really necessary? These are the factors product managers should be looking at:

  • The sensitivity of the data being used to power the feature and how intimate it is. Of course, different people consider some data more sensitive than others but Pew Research has found that, for example, American internet users consider the content of their email and their physical location over time more sensitive than who their friends are and what web sites they have visited. For example, I was not excited about Maps showing my history at a place but I don’t mind the mapping of my contacts’ homes.
  • Consider the demographics of the intended users of the product or feature. The Pew report showed that some age groups found certain types of data more sensitive than others. For example, younger adults think location history is more sensitive than older adults.
  • The relevance of the data to the feature. Is it really necessary? Does it enhance the product? Does it provide an additional dimension or value that cannot be reached without it?
  • The advertising angle. Is the data accessed and presented used to benefit targeted advertising more than to enhance the feature? Even if it is only perceived as such, it might be a good idea to avoid using it.

These types of personal data questions are not unique to Maps and are relevant in different ways for different implementations. For example, asking for permissions in an app: how necessary is the data, how sensitive is it, and is it relevant to the app.

Going forward in Maps, in general, I do like the direction taken with the product, which is the desire to do more than just find locations and figure out the best way to get there. I’d love to see smarter suggestions and app behavior but not base it as much on personal data but on additional available public data such as reviews, popularity, lines, photos, special events at the location, etc. A search for “pizza” can include results based not only on distance. They can include reviews, popularity, and the probability of a long wait at this time. It’s this publicly crowd-sourced data, more than personal or social data, that could have the greatest impact in Maps and may prove to be the most interesting ones going forward.

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