Getting to know the users of your GIS product or service - and really understanding how they tick - is at the core of great application design.

So why is user research essential when creating an effective GIS solution?

Research suggests that the value of the UX design process – and the importance of including user insights into your application planning and design – is widely understood. But there’s one golden rule you need to keep in mind before you start planning, creating or updating your GIS products – you are not the user!

It can be a challenge however applying user research to your GIS projects in a way that sits within the timeline, budget and resources available. Sometimes it’s just not realistic to accommodate weeks or months gathering user intel – but the good news is, committing to even a small amount of user research will make end-products better.

“[The public are] digital natives that expect things online and won’t stand for poor design.” – Australian Governments’ Attitudes to UX Design

Every year, thousands of people across the world line up for the latest iPhone release… this kind of cult following may seem crazy to many, but that is the result of Apple’s ability to build trust with its customer community. Their skill in honing-in on what their customers want and then delivering those desires in an intuitive and simple way is legendary in the digital landscape. There is no denying their main consideration in all product development is the user.

So why is that important for geospatial maps and apps? Due to these technology trailblazers, user expectations are high, and somewhat unforgiving. If an online product or service is difficult or confusing to use and in turn creates a frustrating user-experience, it can quickly become user-less (and in turn useless). The smallest change in how you present spatial information can have a dramatic effect on user uptake.

The way I approach user research differs from project to project, but the core objective doesn’t. The first step is to identify the questions that need answering and then assess different techniques to determine how to answer those questions.

When looking to upgrade or improve an existing application, some of the questions might be “how many people clicked on this link?” or “how many uses are accessing this tool on mobile?”. This is quantitative research which is measured numerically. This type of insight is valuable in understanding the likelihoods of what is currently happening on a map or app.

In order to understand the reasons, opinions, and motivations of the user, we take an explorative approach, often in the form of interviews or conversations. We answer questions such as “Why does this data matter to the user?” “What task do we need to complete, and why?” and “Why does the user need to access this information in the field?”. Qualitative research provides insights into the problem or helps to develop ideas or hypotheses to explore further.

Let’s look at some common user research techniques and the role each plays in providing a better understanding of your users, their needs and behaviours.

User interviews

These are one-on-one discussions which are designed to reveal user motivations, behaviours and frustrations. These conversations are valuable as they allow you to dig deeper and uncover intel which the person may not have been comfortable sharing in a workshop or group environment. These discussions will help clarify the user’s goals, needs and any accessibility or usability challenges to be considered during the design phase. This insight can then be used to develop a defined user persona to validate design decisions made throughout the project lifecycle.


Surveys are always a popular addition to user research programs as they are fairly quick and easy to coordinate. There are many online tools available, making it a cost-effective activity. This is a great way to harness the thoughts of many users in one go – and asking the same questions of all contributors provides an opportunity to identify patterns in feedback. The priority with surveys is to frame the questionnaire strategically, given there isn’t a chance to dig for more information. Open-ended questions are essential.

Focus groups

A sure way to gauge sentiment and stir up some spirited conversation on specific areas of focus is to conduct a group session. Encouraging a collection of users to debate different topics and scenarios can unearth insights which may not be uncovered in one-on-one interviews. Keep in mind, bringing different personalities with varying confidence levels into one discussion can lead to more vocal contributors dominating conversation. It’s important to find ways to encourage all involved to provide opinions so results are not skewed or incomplete.

Card sorting

This is an effective way to understand how users process the information presented within an application and establish a user-friendly sitemap or hierarchy. Card sorting is a quick and easy activity, where you provide users with labelled cards associated with information and ask that they sort the cards into groups that make sense to them. A common scenario in GIS would be to use card sorting as a way of understanding how layers on a map should be categorised to align with end-user thinking.

User analytics

Evaluating quantitative data to understand what people are doing when using a product or service is a vital piece of the research puzzle. Analysing user data for an existing system will uncover patterns, pain points, and insights into user behaviour, helping to assess application performance. This information is then used to inform future optimisation.

User research can provide valuable insight at any stage of a project – whether it’s identifying barriers to adoption on an existing system and mapping out a plan for optimisation, or scoping requirements for a new spatial solution and bridging the gap between business and end-user goals.

To find out more about how UX can help streamline your GIS apps and services, get in touch.

Download the report into Australian Government attitudes towards user experience.

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