Context changes everything: maps, cupcakes and how to meet user expectations

I was offline for a few days so I didn’t hear about the Google Maps cupcake feature until yesterday, when Google pulled it. The feature essentially showed users how many calories they could burn by walking to their destination and they measured that walk by cupcakes. Users responded by saying it felt judgemental to provide calories burned while walking after asking for driving directions, as if Google was trying to shame them into walking instead of driving the short distance. The addition of mini-cupcakes burned was seen as targeted as women specifically and added to the shaming.

I admit, I did not initially understand the negative reaction to this feature. After all, Citymapper has always included a walking option, along with estimated calories burned (not based on any personal user information) since I first started using it years ago and I have never seen any objection to that. Yet the objection was widespread and well-reasoned so I wanted to see what the difference was between this the Citymapper calorie option to see if there was a way to avoid such product mishaps.

Asking for driving instructions but getting unasked for walking route as well.
Google Maps without the calorie count.

Context: The calorie count was presented only when a user mapped a route that was deemed short enough to walk and calories were shown underneath the time it takes to walk. However, these walking routes were shown when a user selected Drive as a route option, not Walk. So two things jump out at me here:

  1. Google already has a Walking option in Maps (along with Cycling, Public Transport, and a Cab/Uber) so it is out of context to see a walking route when expecting for a driving route, and not what the user asked for.
  2. Time is the parameter in Maps for making route decisions where most users prefer the route with the lowest travel time. Calories seems out of place.  

In comparison, Citymapper’s entire flow is different. All route options, including walk, cycle, cab, and different public transit options are presented in a list, all at once. It’s only when users select a transport method that they see a map. Google Maps, on the other hand, starts with a map and offers transport options on the top. The cupcake equivalency caused additional pushback because users didn’t expect and didn’t want to be offered dieting advice with their route lookups.

Timing: In some ways, this is another aspect of the wrong context – a new feature appearing in a familiar app with a familiar interface, in a common use case, that users didn’t like and couldn’t turn off. In Citymapper, the walking option is available for every route since the beginning.

Scope: while I realize that Google must have tried this feature out with a small percentage of its users, possibly also geographically limited, Google Maps is one of the most popular apps on both mobile platforms, one used by many people every day. Even a small percentage of users might already be too many. This is something that less popular apps might not encounter but it means that the reaction for a misstep is amplified.

Diversity: so many product decisions come back to not having enough representation on the product, design and engineering teams in charge, so that products are created that may harm or offend certain unrepresented groups. In this case, Maps played into a stereotype that offended women, who felt targeted with the pink mini-cupcake calorie equivalency.

Give options: I know there’s a saying that the settings are where product decisions go to die, but even if that’s the case, it’s worth giving a clear way for users to disable it, especially when it’s not the core functionality of the app but interferes with one.

Finally, my guess is that it’s a combination of confusing context in a frequently-used flow, along with no ability to disable the feature that caused ire. Maps is used to get from one place to the other. Is it wrong to add fitness/health/diet features to a mapping app? Not necessarily, but it might be better to make them opt-in and contextually relevant.

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