Design Accessible Maps

{ 🗺 } – UX guide to improving navigation apps for the visually impaired.

Banner for Design Accessible Maps article
Original illustration by Pablo Stanley

This study was done by a team led by Dr Young Mi Choi at the Georgia Tech School of Design.

Visually impaired people have a hard time using existing navigation apps. Through user interviews, market research, and user testing, we came up with a list of do’s and don’ts for navigation apps that want to improve their vision accessibility. In this article, I’ll be using Google Maps as an example —this is because 82% of interviewees reported primarily using Google Maps. Keep in mind that these are general guidelines and there may be exceptions to every rule.

Switch mode to decrease clutter

decrease clutter
Visually impaired users only need a few features

The most important features according to our user testing are: search, how to get home, call help, offline mode, and mute/unmute map. Other features on Google Maps are not useful and can clutter the screen for the visually impaired. Navigation apps should include an option to switch modes to minimize screen content.

Use known places, not street names

Use known places, not street names
Visually impaired users know how to get to certain places by heart.

Jack (58) knows how to get to his closest train station, so navigation apps should take advantage of that by first telling him to go there and only starting further navigation after he has arrived. Other rules include: avoiding street names, time or distance when navigating, allowing users to see next or all steps, and allowing users to mute the map at any point to conserve phone battery.

Minimum feedback

Minimum feedback
Visually impaired users generally only need to know how to roughly get to the destination

Before the user research experiment, many of us, myself included, assumed that there should be audio feedback while navigating. However, 100% of interviewees reported that current navigation apps give too much feedback — voicing a new direction at every road and every turn. Through brainstorming and ideation, we found out that the most effective way to communicate directions is to read the entire navigation plan first, and then voice another notification only when users are 500–1500 feet away from their destination.

Re-engineer the device

Re-engineer the device
Visually impaired users can find buttons easier than icons on the UI

One of our interviewees mentioned that she wished there was a button that would voice her current location. She said that a button is much easier to find than an icon on the UI. When asked, our users pointed out that the volume buttons are least used (they control volume via their earphones), and so if possible, when switched to vision accessible mode, the volume buttons should act to:

  • Read the current location
  • Activate Siri/Google Assistant

Ask the users

When in doubt, the best resource for validation is your users. It’s the designer’s responsibility to keep users in the loop and provide the best user experience. I hope you learned something today and will keep these guidelines somewhere in the back of your mind. Feel free to leave any comments if you want to share your own insights about inclusive design.

Additional articles

If you want to contribute to next the issue of Phase Magazine, just drop us a line:

Hiroo Aoyama Avatar

Hiroo Aoyama / Product Design Intern @ Facebook

Hiroo Aoyama is a designer and author. He is currently an incoming product designer at Facebook.