HERE with a new look

Nokia’s maps are here again with a new-look and some new features
(C) HERE 2013

‘The best maps remove unnecessary elements to clearly illustrate the answer. Whether a map of the London Tube or of a battlefield in war, they follow the same principle: they give an answer to one central question with the right level of reduction and the right visualization,’ says Peter Skillman, head of design at HERE. ‘That was our primary goal in this redesign effort – we want to display information in a way that makes sense to people and is easy to follow.’ (Taken from HERE blog)

I must confess that since HERE’s parent company Nokia partnered up with Windows Phone and Windows 8, I have rarely thought to use their map service. But is it something that I’m missing?
You don’t need either of the above Microsoft platforms to view and use HERE, simply visit here.com, and having had a play with the new HERE maps, I have to say that there is quite a lot that impresses. And it seems that the folk over at Google Maps along with several other large companies have been paying attention too.

 
Interface

The thing that immediately strikes me is that the interface around the map, from the menu to the zoom and pan buttons to the pop-up boxes, all looks pretty slick, especially when compared to the dated appearance of the interface around the same map service on Yahoo! Maps.

©HERE 2014

Sadly this also highlights the somewhat dated and by contrast uninspiring point symbols on the map itself, for example for settlement locations. I know many are now interactive buttons, so I guess maybe this is to make it easier to be consistent across platforms and devices. Anyway, the interface not only looks smart but is also intuitive to use.

 
Text

Like most digital maps, text is a bit of an issue. Settlement names in particular seem to lack enough of a hierarchy, an issue I am familiar with in my own work at OS that is gradually being rectified.

©HERE 2014

In this example, Workington is shown as a more important settlement, but all the others share the same size and weight, meaning the small village and township of Eaglesfield is afforded as much prominence as the market town of Cockermouth despite being less than a tenth of the size in terms of both geographical area and population.

In terms of size and font, the text is really easy to read. This is also the case on other layers such as satellite (imagery). Letters appear crisp and well-halo’d (not sure if halo can be a verb with a past tense!). It is also good that when switching between these layers, the user is presented with the same text in the same place, this makes the service easier to use and the maps easier to navigate.

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Colour

The same trick of consistancy is repeated with woods and water, which appear in the same colour across all views, except satellite of course.

At first glance I was not convinced about the road colour scheme, I just didn’t understand why such bright yellow intermediate roads should be used alongside such dull-toned motorways and highways. But the more you use it, the more the colour palette appeals; compared to the intensity of many rival map services, it is actually very pleasant to use which has been achieved by enhancing brightness and by improving the overall feature hierarchy.

©HERE 2014

Creating a road colour-hierarchy, especially for worldwide mapping, is not an easy task but I do feel that nobody has nailed this one quite yet. I do like many of the colours and ideas in this area on HERE though and I am delighted to see that their cartographers have also succeeded in retaining the subtle yellow on their road palette – I had to fight hard for this at OS! While the yellow roads do dominate the magenta ones (and nearly the motorways too!) in the specific example of Zurich, in general the new road colours and thicknesses work well. Below are two examples from Warsaw, Poland. Here you can see that when the number of magenta roads match the number of yellow, the correct hierarchy and the intentions of the cartographer(s) become more obvious.

The rest of the features also benefit from a less-flat approach than before making it easier to identify features. The urban extent, woods, water, local streets and railways all take-up clear positions towards the bottom of the hierarchy and yet all are easily visible, even on my home laptop screen.

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If I now show you how Zurich and Warsaw look versus the previous version of the map, courtesy of the nice guys and girls over at HERE (thank you for providing these) you can see that pastel tones have been kept but with a lot more kick. The cartographers have quite successfully enhanced the contrast and presented a far clearer hierarchy. Old map service on the left and new on the right:

Zurich before and after ©HERE 2014
Zurich before and after
©HERE 2014

Warsaw before and after ©HERE 2014
Warsaw before and after
©HERE 2014

 
Imagery

The ‘Satellite’ layer is in instances wonderful but in truth is a little hit and miss. In the main, the map overlay works really well. However at certain zoom levels, especially the mid-scales and especially in urban areas, the contrast between image and overlay is of varied success.

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Also the imagery feels a little soft (lacking in sharpness) but I figure that this might be intentional for it to work better as a map.

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3D

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The service also makes use of the old Nokia Ovi 3D cities. Zoom in on a city such as London, and in ‘3D Map’ view you can tilt the map and 3D buildings and structures start to draw up. The tilt works anywhere, just like Bing or Google. There is also a 3D glasses button to view the map image in 3D! Not sure why you would but I like the novelty of the idea nevertheless.

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Terrain

Terrain map bases are becoming increasingly popular and HERE maps have a style that is just lovely. It is very soft and subtle but the colours work really well together — including the white roads, especially when high terrain meets urban area like in the Peak District – Sheffield example below. Definitely my favourite layer.

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The actual hillshading or shaded relief effect – along with some subtle layer colouring – looks to me like it is vector-based. This seems to be the future for map zoom stacks as they migrate onto mobile devices but I’m not yet entirely sold on it aesthetically.

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However, the Terrain layer is my favourite and has been improved just as greatly as the map layer. Below is the same area of the Peak District where it meets Sheffield but taken from the old HERE map service:

Terrain layer in the old HERE maps service ©HERE 2014
Terrain layer in the old HERE maps service
©HERE 2014

 
Explore locally

As I live in a village just outside a city, the explore function is a good test especially now that Google Maps’ have added the feature into their Android app. Well HERE did just as well as Google in quantity and quality of results shown and the returned map was both different and appealing. The user-defined distance circle marker is a nice idea.
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The only problem here is that, as various cartographers have pointed out before, a 15-minute circle is pretty inaccurate as driving (walking or any other transport means) a set time from a location will get you different distances in different directions depending on road speeds and layout. Personally though, I am fine with a bit of generalisation, afterall that’s what us cartographers do isn’t it?

A little confused as to why when I enlarge the search radius, my initial results drop out though. It would appear that is has dropped them in favour of showing larger or more important places of interest. As I wrote in my Google Maps review, I am not sure this kind of ‘intelligence’ is clever or just a pain in the backside.

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Explore can also be used in the form of symbols and a heat map, for example to explore where to go out in the evening. A nice feature and most importantly it works but once more I think the point symbols could be better.

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Transport

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Transit maps are quite a cool addition for mobile users. Definitely easier than loading up a website, e.g. TfL in London, and navigating to and downloading and opening the PDF of the tube network. Instead just load it into the map you may already have used to navigate to the station. It is also quite clever that the roads and paths automatically switch to white when this is activated.

Live traffic is another new feature. The appearance is crisp and utilises modern symbols but whilst I understand the advantages of leaving the road unblocked – pardon the pun – and that coloured ‘casings’ allow HERE to show traffic flow in both directions of the carriageway, I don’t think they are as easy to interpret as single-line coloured road fills.

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Scheduled public transport information and live weather are also available in the service.

 
All-in-all, I had somewhat forgotten about HERE and I am really very pleased to have rediscovered it. As a fellow cartographic designer, I think the HERE team have been quite brave and I applaud them for it. I think there is scope for improvement but a lot of the improved features and styling are certainly something that resonate with what I am involved with at Ordnance Survey and it seems to me that HERE are on the way to creating a very powerful and appealing map service.

The fact that Google are following the explore idea a lot more closely, the fact that so many car manufacturers are adopting HERE as their built-in satellite navigation platform (with reference to the currency and accuracy of data) and the fact that such a dynamic company as Red Bull have just signed a partnership agreement with them, all suggests that HERE maps is reclaiming a sizeable spot in the map service marketplace.

 
Sources and further information:
New design for HERE maps by Pino Bonetti, HERE Three Sixty 23/06/14
New map design by Ian Delaney, HERE Three Sixty 30/06/14
New maps design by Ian Delaney, HERE Three Sixty 15/07/14

 

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