I, like everyone else, love Google Maps.
I love Google Maps. You probably do too, and everyone you know probably does too (unless your GPS app of choice is Waze — more on this later). If you have an iPhone, you’ve probably moved Apple Maps to an obsolete folder somewhere on the third or fourth home screen.
So how does Google Maps manage to retain such a large and consistent user base?
My guess is this: Google Maps not only performs its basic functions well, but also goes above and beyond with features that we as a user base didn’t know we wanted, but that have now become indispensable in our everyday lives.
As a baseline, Google Maps does a commendable job of fulfilling the GPS user’s basic needs: accurate destination searches, reliable ETA’s with real-time traffic information, search memory, a variety of transportation mode options, and the ability to save “Home” and “Work” addresses. These basic features are intuitive to use and are laid out in a clean, no-frills interface.
Where Google Maps excels is everything it does over and above these standard features.
I’ve picked five of my favorites:
- Color-coded real-time traffic information // If I map my route and see a whole chunk of red on the highway, I can choose to avoid that specific part of the directions — or at the very least, I can mentally prepare myself to be stuck in traffic for a while.
- Sending directions from my computer to my phone // This solves the minor but annoying need to search for the directions a second time on my phone once I’ve finished scoping out my route on the computer.
- The ability to share all kinds of information // This includes my destination, location, parking spot, routed maps, etc. Obvious benefits include planning trips and meetup locations with friends. Being able to share my location has proved its worth during some of my more unglamorous moments (stuck in a ditch off some stretch of a highway).
- It can remember my parking spot // I can set any location (destination or dropped pin) as my parking spot by expanding the location details and then selecting the vertical ellipsis icon in the upper right corner. (See image below.)
- Offline maps // If I know I won’t have cell coverage during a trip (think international trips and remote areas), I can download offline maps for the areas I’ll be travelling through. This lets me search and navigate to destinations within the downloaded regions even when I don’t have service.
Google Maps is a first-rate app, and yet many have chosen to adopt Waze as their preferred GPS app. I’ve used Waze only a few times, several years ago. Based on my limited experience with this app and a quick glance at its current app listing on Google Play, I understand why so many people have made the switch.
Some of Waze’s differentiating features:
- Alerts for accidents, road hazards, road closures, and police traps as you approach them
- Automatic rerouting as road conditions change
- Shows you the cheapest gas nearby
- Allows you to send ETA updates to whomever you’re meeting
With over 6 million downloads in the Google Play store compared to Google Map’s 8 million+ downloads (as of today), Waze has become a formidable contender in the GPS app space. Google Maps undoubtedly benefits from ubiquity and a household name, but if it wants to secure its place as the most-used GPS app, it needs to consider what key competitors like Waze are doing and continue to iterate and improve itself. I know Google Maps actually gets this because I’m constantly seeing updated features in the app, with each iteration more useful and valuable than the last.
To me, this is what makes a product a great one — a dedication to truly understanding the user’s needs (sometimes even before the user perceives them), iterating frequently to address these needs, and the humility to recognize that being first today doesn’t guarantee being first tomorrow.