Six days in L.A. with Google and Apple Maps

I’m returning to NYC from Los Angeles where I spent six days doing what you do in L.A. — driving all over the damn place: LAX to Santa Monica to Glendale to Pasadena to San Pedro to Chatsworth to Northridge to La Canada Flintridge to Verdugo Hills.

You get the idea.

I live in NYC where Google Maps still bests Apple Maps because of its superior subway mapping. But because I’m a UX nerd, and despite the fact that I’m originally from L.A., I figured this trip was a great opportunity to compare Apple Maps to Google Maps for driving. Before each outing, I’d fire each up and head out.

After many rental car miles, Google Maps won me over. Here are a few reasons why.

Readability

I found Apple Maps (left) harder to read at a distance than Google Maps (right)

In some ways, Apple Maps is more attractive — at least to this designer’s eye. But when you have your phone sitting on the car seat next to you, readability matters more than pure aesthetics. Google Maps was much easier to read from a distance. Some of the type in Apple Maps was too small, and the large white type set against highway sign green in Google Maps was quite legible.

Rerouting

Like any good navigator, Google Maps offers quicker routes when available. Apple—not so much.

Traffic happens. And when it did, Google Maps always detected the jam and offered a quick re-route around the problem spot — sometimes taking me on creative but efficient alternate routes. With Apple Maps, once I selected a route, it was set in stone.

Google Maps also offered other helpful hints, like this.

Bird’s eye view

Google Maps lets you zoom out to see your whole route.

Each app shows you what’s in your immediate future — the next turn, onramp, or exit. But sometimes you want to get an overview of your entire journey. Google Maps lets you pinch out so you can see the whole route, and then re-center yourself (how very zen). Apple Maps doesn’t permit this. I found myself pinching and pulling on the screen, only to have it snap back like a petulant toddler. Grrrr. The only way I could see my whole route in Apple Maps was to pause navigation — what a hassle.

Update: I understand Maps in iOS 10 will support zooming out.

From there to there

Apple Maps (left) hides directions under the curved arrow by the search field. Google Maps uses an obvious FAB in the lower right, with a helpful label.

The obvious use case for a map app is plotting a route to or from your current location, and that works well in both apps. Sometimes, though, you want to plot a route that doesn’t include your current location, and both maps also allow that by providing two text fields stacked one atop the other. In Apple Maps, however, I kept forgetting where these text fields were. It wasn’t intuitive. Eventually I’d remember that it was buried behind a crooked arrow near the search field.

This actually brings up a problem with both apps: neither really hews to a very mnemonic mental model. Because each screen is unique and lacks any kind of overarching framing mechanism to orient you (e.g., a navigation bar), it’s easy to get lost in the app, and it’s difficult to remember where certain features can be found.

Not much around

When looking for nearby restaurants, gas stations or attractions, Google simply returned more and better results. This makes sense, given their command of search, but I assumed Apple’s relationship with Yelp might result in better…results. It didn’t.

Google Maps has handy filters, but hides the map when in list view.
Apple Maps lacks filters, but always shows the map.

Google Maps also provides a filter to show businesses that are open now; in Apple Maps, I had to visit the detail screen, then pogo-stick back if a business was closed.

Conclusion

Both apps are amazing in many ways — I mean, c’mon, I’m navigating the world with my phone, in real time! And both apps have serious UX challenges and other flaws.

Nonetheless, Google Maps proved to be my bicoastal preference: better for transit in NYC, and better for driving in Los Angeles.


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Originally published at www.mmcwatters.com.