HCI Theory in Google Maps


On this site, we evaluate an online system, Google Maps, through the lenses of various human-computer interaction (HCI) theories. This page provides an overview of our theoretical analysis; each theory is described in more depth on their respective pages.

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What is Google Maps?

Google Maps is a versatile digital tool that helps people navigate and explore the world. It includes directions, maps, and imagery of many countries and allows users to search by keyword for establishments near a specified location. It also allows users to view business information and read and write reviews. Google Maps is accessible via a web browser (such as on a laptop) or via a variety of device applications.

According to the Global Web Index, Google Maps for mobile is the world's most popular app for smartphones, with over 54% of global smartphone owners using it at least once during the month of August 2013 (Global Web Index, 2013). Digitized maps have completely revolutionized wayfinding and how we navigate through the world, all but removing the possibility of ever getting lost. It has changed the way we might select a coffee shop in a new city by providing us with more information than we know what to do with in the form of reviews, star ratings, business information, and much more. However, as Google evolves from simply a tool to get people from A to B, to positioning itself as a center of consumerism and e-commerce, it is deserving of an in-depth examination. We will be looking at Google Maps through the lens of three influential theories in HCI: distributed cognition, semiotic engineering, and feminist HCI.

What each theory brings to Google Map

Distributed cognition reveals a clearer picture of how Google Maps is situated within a larger, distributed system. Google Maps—and the interactions that surround it—act as a complex cognitive structure that requires the constant transfer of knowledge between internal and external representations, across multiple individuals, and over time. Leveraging this lens, we can better understand and explore the relationships between maps, time, different people, and the user’s immediate experience. If we look at Google Maps through the lens of other theories, we might gain a perspective about the user interacting with a system and his motivations for doing so, but we would fail to see the system—and the user’s experience within it—as a part of this larger dynamic.

» Read about distributed cognition in Google Maps

Semiotic engineering builds on the foundational principle of semiotics and the understanding of signs and symbols. This approach differs from others because it does not prioritize the user-centered design approach and suggests that the designer is an active contributor to the communication that takes place through the interface. The designer cannot be present to communicate directly to the user, and as such depends on the interface to facilitate telling the users what the system does and how it can be used. Using this approach as a lens, we can examine how Google Map designers have communicated with their intended audience, through icons, graphical layout and meta-communication and whether these cues sufficiently allow the user to easily discover how to navigate through the system.

» Read about semiotic engineering in Google Maps

Feminist HCI is an introspective and critical strategy centralized around issues such as agency, fulfillment, identity, equity, empowerment, and social justice. As Google Maps increasingly becomes more and more ubiquitous, feminist HCI can help us understand both the use of and design decisions behind this interactive technology. The theory challenges the notion of what is considered obvious or universal to a dominant social group and considers whether the technology promotes inclusion, or conversely, whether it promotes exclusion and marginalization. Using this theoretical framework as a critical lens to explore the design and interaction of Google Maps, our analysis seeks to address how the technology reinforces marginalized populations and exposes unintended consequences resulting from design choices by a dominant social group.

» Read about feminist HCI in Google Maps

Theory Connections/Limitations

The theories of semiotic engineering, distributed cognition and feminist HCI are complementary lenses through which we can effectively examine a ubiquitous technology, such as Google Maps, and begin to understand the breadth and depth of processes that need to be recognized in order to effectively design for global user groups. Though these theories provide a wealth of insight into the system under study, individually they are lacking in varying capacities and do not effectively provide the holistic perspective required to fully explore the interconnected properties of Google Maps.

Through the lens of semiotic engineering alone, designers are limited by a narrow perspective that does not consider context beyond interaction. Google Map designers communicate their vision to the user through the map interface, using symbols, signs and meta-communication. However, their design lacks pluralism by presupposing the technological expertise of its users and makes assumptions about what symbols are universally recognized. Combining feminist HCI with semiotic engineering, a designer benefits by studying semiosis in a wider social and cultural context. Using ethnography to build a deep understanding, he gains insight into the different types of knowledge held by those outside the dominant group and considers these differences when designing the system.

When considering the entire system, feminist HCI and distributed cognition are excellent frameworks that help the designer better understand the context surrounding the use of Google Maps and the people who may or may not use it. Distributed cognition positions Google Maps as an artefact or tool, through which cognition is distributed and designers benefit from understanding and exploring the relationships between maps, time and different people. However, distributed cognition as a stand-alone theory lacks practical application that can easily be incorporated into a design process and fails to reveal underlying motivations that drive users towards using Google Maps nor does it reveal how the design may impact people’s lives. Evaluating Google Maps using feminist HCI combined with distributed cognition, the designer’s perspective is focused to examine several layers of context; understanding Google Maps in relation to the broad social system in which it exists and also in relation to the many groups and individuals who are active participants in both the system and the technology itself.

Distributed cognition, feminist HCI and semiotic engineering used together offer a well-rounded perspective as each theory plays off the other’s strengths. We are afforded a robust theoretical framework that allows us to focus narrowly and deeply into specific parts of the system, while also opening our view to reveal a bigger picture that brings awareness to the totality of the interconnected system.


Global Web Index (2013) Top Global Smartphone Apps, Who's in the Top 10. Top Global Smartphone Apps, Who's in the Top 10.

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