User Interface and User Experience (UI/UX) Design
Cite as: Roth, R. E. (2017). User Interface and User Experience (UI/UX) Design. The Geographic
Information Science & Technology Body of Knowledge (2nd Quarter 2017 Edition), John P. Wilson
(ed.). doi: 10.22224/gistbok/2017.2.5.
Advances in personal computing and information technologies have fundamentally transformed how
maps are produced and consumed, as many maps today are highly interactive and delivered online or
through mobile devices. Accordingly, we need to consider interaction as a fundamental complement to
representation in cartography and visualization. UI (user interface) / UX (user experience) describes a set
of concepts, guidelines, and workflows for critically thinking about the design and use of an interactive
product, map-based or otherwise. This entry introduces core concepts from UI/UX design important to
cartography and visualization, focusing on issues related to visual design. First, a fundamental distinction
is made between the use of an interface as a tool and the broader experience of an interaction, a
distinction that separates UI design and UX design. Norman’s stages of interaction framework then is
summarized as a guiding model for understanding the user experience with interactive maps, noting how
different UX design solutions can be applied to breakdowns at different stages of the interaction. Finally,
three dimensions of UI design are described: the fundamental interaction operators that form the basic
building blocks of an interface, interface styles that implement these operator primitives, and
recommendations for visual design of an interface.
affordance: a signal to the user about how to interact with the interface
feedback: a signal to the user about what happened as a result of the interaction
interaction: the two-way question-answer or request-result dialogue between a human user and a
digital object mediated through a computing device
interaction primitive: the fundamental components of interaction that can be combined to form
an interaction strategy
interaction operator: a generic function implemented in an interactive tool that enables the user
to manipulate the display
interface: a tool enabling a user to manipulate a digital object
interface complexity: the total number of unique representations that can be created through the
interface (scope multiplied by freedom)
interface flexibility: ability to complete the same objective with an interface through different
interface freedom: the precision by which each operator can be executed
interface scope: the baseline number of operators implemented in an interactive tool
interface style/mode: the manner by which user input is submitted to perform the operator
user experience (UX) design: iterative set of decisions leading to a successful outcome with an
interactive tool, as well as a productive and satisfying process while arriving at this outcome
user interface (UI) design: the iterative set of decisions leading to a successful implementation of
an interactive tool
1. Introducing UI/UX
1.1 The User Interface versus the User Experience
Advances in personal computing and information technologies have fundamentally transformed how
maps are produced and consumed, as many maps today are highly interactive and delivered online or
through mobile devices. UI (user interface) / UX (user experience) describes a set of concepts, guidelines,
and workflows for critically thinking about the design and use of an interactive product (Garrett, 2010),
map or otherwise. UI/UX is a growing profession in the geospatial industry and broader technology sector
(Haklay, 2010), with UI/UX designers needed to engage with stakeholders and target users throughout
large software engineering and web design projects (see Additional Resources). This entry reviews the
conceptual principles behind UI/UX, emphasizing visual design following other entries in the
Cartography & Visualization section and complementing the technologically-oriented User Interfaces
entry spanning GIScience in the Programming & Development section.
UI and UX are not the same, separated in their focus on interfaces versus interactions. An interface is a
tool, and for digital mapping this tool enables the user to manipulate maps and their underlying
geographic information. An interaction is broader than the interface, describing the two-way question-
answer or request-result dialogue between a human user and a digital object mediated through a
computing device (Roth, 2012). Therefore, an interaction is both contingent—as the response is based on
the request, creating loops of interactivity—and empowering—giving the user agency in the mapping
process with changes contingent on his or her interests and needs (Sundar et al. 2014).
Therefore, humans use interfaces, but they experience interactions, and it is the experience that
determines the success of an interactive product (Norman, 1988). UI design describes the iterative set of
decisions leading to a successful implementation of an interactive tool while UX design describes the
iterative set of decisions leading to a successful outcome with the interactive, as well as a productive and
satisfying process while arriving at this outcome. Accordingly, UI/UX often is reversed as UX/UI to
emphasize the importance of designing the overall experience rather than just the interface.
1.2 Scholarly Influences on UI/UX Design in Cartography and Visualization
Within GIScience, interaction most commonly is treated by the research thrust of geographic visualization
(see Geovisualization). Interactivity supports visual thinking, enabling users to externalize their
reasoning by requesting a wide range of unique map representations (DiBiase, 1990), thus overcoming the
limitations of any single map design. Geovisualization encourages this interactive reasoning for the
purpose of exploration rather than communication (see Cartography & Science), with the goal of
generating new hypotheses and spontaneous insights about unknown geographic phenomena and
processes (MacEachren & Ganter, 1990; MacEachren, 1994). As a result, much of the early research on
interaction in cartography and visualization is specific to scientific discovery, considering expert
specialists as the target user groups.
Today, UI/UX design requires consideration of use cases beyond exploratory geovisualization and users
beyond expert researchers. Interaction allows users to view multiple (sometimes all) locations and map
scales as well as customize the representation to their interests and needs. Interaction also empowers users
in the cartographic design process, improving accessibility to geographic information and dissolving
traditional boundaries between mapmaker and map user (see Cartography & Power). Increasingly,
interaction enables geographic analysis, linking computing to cognition in order to scale the human mind
to the complexity of the mapped phenomenon or process (see Geovisual Analytics). Accordingly,
interaction has been suggested as a fundamental complement to representation in cartography, together
organizing contemporary cartographic scholarship and practice (Roth, 2013a; Figure 1). For discussion of
additional influences on UI/UX design in cartography and visualization, see Geocollaboration, Usability
Engineering, and Web Mapping.
Figure 1. Cartography traditionally has been divided by topics on mapmaking (see the Map Design Fundamentals topics)
versus map use (see Map Use). Advances in digital mapping technology require consideration of a second distinction:
representation versus interaction (separated in the Body of Knowledge under Map Design Techniques versus Interactive
Design Techniques). Research and design now draws from a blending of both dimensions. (adapted with permission from Roth,
2. Designing the User Experience
2.1 Stages of Interaction
An interaction requires the user to employ perceptual, motor, and cognitive abilities as they view,
manipulate, and interpret an interactive map. Norman (1988) offers a useful framework for
conceptualizing a map interaction as a two-way dialogue or conversation, decomposing a single
interaction exchange into seven discrete and observable stages:
1. Forming the goal: The goal is what the user is trying to achieve with the interface and therefore
represents the user’s motivation for using the interface (a need, interest, curiosity, etc.). Goals are
described as “high-level” tasks, and may include exploration, analysis, synthesis, and presentation
2. Forming the intention: The intention is the specific map reading objective that the user completes
in support of the goal. Accordingly, intentions are described as “low-level” tasks. Intentions
include identification of a map feature, comparison of two map features, ranking of a set of map
features, etc. Therefore, an intention yields a specific geographic insight, such as detection of a
difference, change, outlier, anomaly, correlation, trend, cluster, or spike.
3. Specifying an action: The user then must translate their intention to the functions (described
below as operators) implemented in the interface. The interface needs strong affordances―or
signals to the user about how to interact with the interface―for the user to specify which operator
best supports the intention before executing the action.
4. Executing an action: The user then must execute the specified action using input computing
devices, such as a pointing device (e.g., mouse, touchscreen), keying device (e.g., keyboard,
keypad), or other mode (e.g., gesture or speech recognition). Once the action is executed, the
computing device processes the request and, if successful, returns a new map representation to the
5. Perceiving the system state: Once returned, the user then views the new representation. Here,
strong feedback―or signals to the user about what happened as a result of the interaction―is
needed to clarify how the map changed after the request. It is through this provision of feedback
that the map participates in the two-way interaction dialogue.
6. Interpreting the system state: After perceiving the change to the map representation through
feedback, the user then must make sense of the update. One way to describe this stage is
completion of the intention: once a new map is returned, it can be used to carry out the user’s
low-level task and, if successful, generate a new geographic insight.
7. Evaluating the outcome: The evaluation compares the insight with the expected result to
determine if the goal has been achieved. This includes critical evaluation of the insight ("does this
seem right?") and meta-evaluation of the overarching goal ("do I have my answer?"). Following
this evaluation, the user may revise their goal and initialize a new interaction exchange, restarting
the seven stage sequence.
Norman described breakdowns between the user and the map (Stages #1-4) as the “gulf of execution”, or
the mismatch between user tasks and supported operators, and breakdowns between the map and the user
as the “gulf of evaluation”, or the mismatch between the result of the operator and the user’s expected
result. Table 1 works through Norman’s seven stages of interaction and lists UX design solutions
available when a breakdown at a given stage is observed (adapted from Roth, 2013a).
Table 1. Norman (1988) reduced an interaction into seven discrete, observable stages. An observed breakdown at a given stage
suggests a specific set of UX solutions. (adapted from Roth, 2013a)
Ex.1: Analog Door
Ex.2: Digital Map
Observe a Breakdown?
Some UX Solutions?
“I want to get out of
“I want to explore
long-term patterns in
The user’s goal is not
supported by the interactive
(Type I error), or the user does
not think that the interactive
supports his or her goal (Type
• Complete a needs assessment to
define user goals.
• Implement strategies to improve
user expertise and motivation.
“I will identify the
door I will use to
“I will start by
determining if the
changed since the
The user cannot complete one
or several low-level tasks or
relies on map reading alone to
complete low-level tasks
• Develop use case scenarios based
on low-level tasks.
• Evaluate the interactive using
“I will use the door
handle to open the
“I will use the
to advance the
timeline by decade
from the 1950s to
The user does not understand
how the provided interface
functionality supports their
goals and intentions.
• Improve visual affordances.
• Implement startup and tooltip
• Configure the map with a smart
default to show how the UI and
“I pull the door
"I use the mouse to
move the slider
beginning to end.”
The user does not understand
how to submit information to
the interface through the input
devices or incorrectly used the
• Improve flexibility to support
multiple input devices.
• Reduce point mileage and
workload to avoid errors.
• Use accelerators to speed
• Use visual metaphors drawn from
“I feel that the door
did not open.”
“I see that the map
now has more tornado
tracks on it.”
The user does not notice how
the map changed due to the
• Improve visual feedback through
• Provide summary information to
compare before and after
• Use breadcrumbs to remind the
user how they interacted.
“I think this means
that I need to push
the handle instead
of pull it.”
“I think this means
there are more
tornadoes today than
there were in the
The user does not understand
what the change in the map
• Combine visualization with
statistical computation to
highlight significant insights (see
“This is a stupid
door, but at least I
know how to get out
now. Good thing
there wasn't a fire!”
“I now will modify
my goal from a broad
exploration of long-
term patterns across
tornado activity to
analysis of specific
causes of the
The user does not receive
information from the
interaction that helped them
achieve their goal.
• Provide visual provenance to
track interactions across
• Support enabling operators (e.g.,
save, annotate, export) to collect
insights during interaction.
• Support collaboration to share
2.2 Additional UX Frameworks
A number of disciplines, professions, and knowledge areas contribute to UI/UX design, including
ergonomics, graphic design, human-computer interaction, information visualization, psychology, usability
engineering, and web design. Additional frameworks for understanding UX design have been offered as
UX becomes formalized conceptually and professionally (see Roth, 2013a, for a review). For instance,
Fitts’ (1954) law providing an early understanding of pointing interactions was based on psychology
studies about human bodily movement, Further, Foley et al.’s (1990; 2014) three design levels (the
conceptual, operational, and implementational levels, as discussed for mapping by Howard &
MacEachren, 1996) were derived from research on human-computer interaction while Garrett’s (2010)
five planes of design (the surface, skeleton, structure, scope, and strategy planes, as discussed for
mapping by Tsou, 2011) are offered from web design experience. Finally, most recommendations
describe UI/UX as a design process that includes multiple, user-centered evaluations, making use of
methods and measures established in Usability Engineering (see Usability Engineering).
3. Designing the User Interface
3.1 Interaction Operators
As with representation design and the visual variables (see Symbolization & the Visual Variables), an
interaction can be deconstructed into its basic building blocks (Figure 2). Interaction primitives describe
the fundamental components of interaction that can be combined to form an interaction strategy (Roth,
2012). Scholars in cartography (e.g., Cartwright et al., 2001) and related fields (e.g., Thomas & Cook,
2005) identify development of a taxonomy of interaction primitives as the most pressing need for the
understanding of interaction, as such a taxonomy articulates the complete solution space for UI/UX
design. Accordingly, there are now a range of taxonomies offered in the UI/UX literature, including
taxonomies specific to cartography and visualization (e.g., Dykes, 1997; MacEachren et al., 1999;
Crampton, 2002; Andrienko et al., 2003; Edsall et al., 2008).
Figure 2. Every interactive map can be deconstructed to its basic interaction primitives. Here, Google Maps is annotated
according to the supported interaction operators, with each click, tap, etc., related to its functional purpose. (image captured and
annotated from http://maps.google.com; February 2017)
Table 2. UI design relies upon interaction operator primitives. UI design recommendations specific to cartography and
visualization are beginning to emerge for each operator. (adapted from Roth, 2013b)
Interactive Map Example
Some UI Design Recommendations?
Set or change the displayed map
representation without changing the
“Reexpress from a choropleth map
to a proportional symbol map.”
• Reexpress to a proportional symbol map type on web maps to
overcome issues with normalization and Web Mercator.
• Reexpress cartograms as choropleth maps to support
• Reexpress temporal sequences when interested in linear and
• Reexpress between maps and non-map representations to
reveal anomalies present in different visual structures.
Generate and advance through an
ordered set of related maps, each
with different information.
“Sequence by decade from 1950 to
• Constrain the binning unit to intervals in space, time, or
attributes that make sense for the use case scenario.
• Sequence all animations (temporal or otherwise) to give users
controls over the playback.
Change the feature types included in
the map for additional context.
“Overlay bike lanes atop the map.”
(Also underlay: “Turn on the
imagery basemap beneath the
• Overlay only a small subset of context layers for general users
to avoid meaningless overplotting.
• Overlay custom layers (via import) for expert users to support
association tasks (e.g., correlations, cause-effect relationships).
• Overlay visual benchmarks providing summary context (e.g.,
average, max-min) to support comparison and ranking tasks.
Set or change the design parameters
of a map without changing the map
“Resymbolize the choropleth map
from five classes/colors to an
unclassed color ramp.”
• Constrain resymbolization for general users to avoid
• Resymbolize all design parameters for expert users to manage
visual hierarchy while interacting.
• Resymbolize class breaks to support ranking and delineation
(e.g., clusters, spikes) tasks.
• Resymbolize through direct manipulation of the legend.
• Dynamically update the legend when resymbolizing.
Change the map scale.
“Zoom from a city overview into a
• Increase the level of detail in the map when zooming into the
map (i.e., “semantic” zoom).
• Consider conventional tileset zoom level map scales when
generalizing linework for mapping on the web.
• Zoom only to a subset of relevant map scales appropriate for
the level of detail of the linework.
• Include a widget to zoom out to the smallest/default map
• Support flexibility given the ubiquity of zooming on slippy
web maps (e.g., double-click, mousewheel, pinch-and-zoom,
Change the geographic center of the
“Pan the map from the origin to the
destination of the route.”
• Limit the mouse/pointer mileage needed to pan between map
features for the goal of presentation and general users.
• Support flexibility given the ubiquity of panning on slippy web
maps (e.g., click-and-drag, direction keys, grab-and-drag)
Set or change the map projection
(beyond map scale and centering)
“Reproject to show north as up on
• Reproject when panning and zooming if not computationally
• Rotate away from north-up for egocentric mobile applications
Remove/highlight map features
within a feature type that do not
meet one or a set of user-defined
“Filter the map to show top-rated
• Support filtering over searching for the goal of exploration and
• Use slider widget to filter by numerical facets and
checkboxes/radio buttons to filter by categorical facets.
• Filter to complete complex ranking and delineation tasks.
• Require the user to click a “submit” button for complex
filtering taking longer than 100 milliseconds to avoid
perceived lags in interaction.
Add/highlight a map feature of
“Search for the destination by
• Support searching over filtering for the goal of presentation
and general users.
• Search to complete simple identification tasks.
• Support spatial search by the user’s location on mobile
Request details on demand about a
map feature of interest.
“Retrieve details about the State of
• Retrieve details to complete simple identification tasks.
• Layout the UI controls so that detail retrieval occurs after other
interactions that reduce the candidate map features to a subset
of interest (following Shneiderman’s mantra).
• Move from an information window that activates atop the map
to a docked information panel as the f information complexity
about the map features increases.
Manipulate the layout of maps,
coordinated views, and map
“Rearrange the legend atop the map
to interpret the symbol.”
• Constrain arrangement for the goal of presentation and general
users to avoid misleading representations.
• Separate coordinated views into dialog windows for mobile.
Derive new information about a map
feature of interest.
“Calculate the distance to the next
• Use persistent interfaces over nested interfaces when
supporting complex calculations.
• Make visual as many components of calculations and models
through the interface.
Interaction primitive taxonomies differ by the stages of interaction they include. While UX design
considers primitives at all stages, UI design primarily focuses upon interaction operator primitives (Stage
#3: Specifying the Action), or the generic functions implemented in the interactive that enable the user to
manipulate the display. Operators include panning, zooming, and detail retrieval—functions common to
“slippy” web maps using tilesets (see Web Mapping)–as well as reexpression to different visual
overviews, overlay of context information, and filtering across multiple facets of the mapped dataset–
functions essential to Shneiderman’s (1996) information seeking mantra in big data visualizations (see
Big Data Visualization). Table 2 describes common operator primitives in cartography and visualization,
synthesizing UI/UX recommendations (adapted from Roth, 2013b).
Not all maps need to be interactive, and not all interactive maps require the same UI design. Interface
scope describes the baseline number of operators implemented in an interactive product (e.g., just panning
and zooming versus panning and zooming plus searching, filtering), while interface freedom describes
the precision by which each operator can be executed (e.g., zooming any map scale versus only ~20 pre-
processed scales). Together, scope and freedom determine the interface complexity, or the total number
of unique representations that can be created through the interface. Much like managing information
complexity in cartographic design (see Generalization), managing interface complexity is essential for
good UI/UX design. The appropriate balance of flexibility versus constraint in the UI/UX design
ultimately should be determined through user input and evaluation (see Usability Engineering).
3.2 Interface Styles
An operator is implemented in one of several interface styles, also called modes, or the manner by which
user input is submitted to perform the operator (Shneiderman & Plaisant, 2010 as discussed for mapping
by Howard & MacEachren, 1996). The same operator can be implemented multiple times through
different interface styles, allowing users to complete the same objective with an interface through
different interaction strategies, a design concept described as interface flexibility. In graphic user
interfaces (i.e., GUIs), the interface style is the widget, menu, or form that triggers an event when input is
received; the operator is the business logic that is executed after the event is handled.
Interface styles are defined by their level of directness in submitting input (Figure 3). Fully direct
manipulation enables probing, dragging, and other adjustments to graphic elements of the UI. For
cartography and visualization, direct manipulation can be applied to individual map features (common for
detail retrieval), the entire map (common for panning, zooming, and reprojection), map elements like a
legend (common for filtering and resymbolizing), a linked information graphic or visualization (common
for reexpression of overviews, filtering, and detail retrieval in a coordinated visualization), or simply a
custom widget such as buttons or slider bars (common for filtering, toggling overlays, and sequencing
through a map series or animation) (Roth, 2013a).
Less direct interface styles include menus, or the selection of one or more items from a list (common for
filtering), and forms, or the keying of characters into a blank textbox (common for searching). The move
towards mobile-first or post-WIMP (Windows, Icons, Menus, and Pointers) design in cartography has
substantially changed how direct interface styles are designed in order to support imprecise (finger-based)
touch interactions (see Mobile Mapping & Responsive Design). Command language and natural
language styles are indirect and non-graphic styles for implementing operators. Shneiderman & Plaisant
(2010) provide a comprehensive summary of the relative advantages and disadvantages of interface styles
for UI design.
Figure 3. Every interaction operator can be implementing using one of many interface styles or modes. For example: (a) detail
retrieval through direct manipulation of a map feature, (b) panning through direct manipulation of the entire map, (c) filtering
through direction manipulation of the map legend, (d) coordinated detail retrieval through direct manipulation of a linked
isomorph, (e) sequencing through direct manipulation of a slider interface widget, (f) filtering by indirect menu selection, (g)
annotating metadata through indirect form fill-in, (h) reexpression of a new map through indirect command line, and (i) detail
retrieval through natural language and gesture recognition, Additional details about the depicting interactive maps and
visualizations are included in Roth (2013a). (reproduced from Roth, 2013a, p88)
3.3 Visual Interface Design
As with paper or static cartographic design (see Aesthetics and Design), the visual look and feel of the
UI design is “more than just icing on the cake”: it sets the tone for the entire user experience, from setting
the mood and evoking an appropriate emotional response through improving usability and subjective
satisfaction. UI design is a highly creative process, and creation of a coherent and unique visual brand
relies on iterative refinement of global design decisions (e.g., interface layout and responsiveness,
application navigation, visual affordances and feedback, color scheme, typefaces) and local design
decisions (e.g., visual metaphors for direct manipulation interface widgets, specific text phrasing for
icons, tooltips, and information windows). Nielsen (1994) provides a useful set of usability heuristics for
guiding visual interface design.
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• Understand: Describe traditional and emerging use cases for interactivity in cartography and
visualization (e.g., exploration, analytics, presentation)
• Understand: Describe a user need for the following interaction operators: panning, zooming,
overview reexpression, filtering, detail retrieval, etc.
• Apply: Walkthrough the stages of interaction using different interface controls in an interactive
map and identify potential breakdowns and solutions.
• Analyze: Deconstruct an interactive map into its basic interaction primitives.
• Evaluate: Evaluate an interactive map design by UI/UX design recommendations (e.g.,
affordances/feedback, interface complexity, interface styles, design heuristics).
• Create: Design an interactive map suitable for a given set of user needs.
• Perhaps the two most common kinds of mapping interfaces that geospatial professionals
experience today are simple web maps (e.g., Apple Maps, Google Maps) and fully-featured GIS
(e.g., ArcGIS, QGIS). These UX design contexts could not be more different! Compare and
contrast these two UX contexts according to user needs, potential breakdowns in the user
experience, recommended UI controls, etc., arguing why these two kinds of mapping interfaces
necessarily should be different.
• In lab ___, you created an interactive map depicting ___. Use the stages of interaction framework
to walkthrough how you envisioned a first time user to interact with your map (i.e., work through
multiple loops of the framework). Identify potential breakdowns in your design and discuss UX
design solutions to enhance your interactive map in the future.
• Navigate to your online campus map:
o If interactive: Critique the campus map according UI/UX design recommendations (e.g.,
which interaction operators should be added to / removed from the map? how could your
university develop a better visual brand through the campus map?). Present your critique
as a series of recommendations for improving the campus map.
o If static: Assess how the campus map should take advantage of interactivity according to
UI/UX design recommendations (e.g., which interaction operators should be added to the
map? how could your university develop a better visual brand through the campus map?).
Present your assessment as a series of recommendations for making the campus map
• You have been given a description of unmet user needs and target user personas for a proposed
interactive map (derive from class readings/discussion). Develop a requirements document
outlining the functional scope of the proposed interactive map. Include notes about the
recommend interface freedom and flexibility for each interaction operator included in the
• You have been given a description of a use case scenario for an interactive map and a
requirements document proposing the functional scope of the interface to support this use case
(derive from class readings/discussion). Sketch a prototype of the interface based on UI/UX
design recommendations, including an example map representation. Annotate the sketch with
notes justifying the interface styles used to implement each operator, the layout of interface
controls, and aspects of the visual design that produce a coherent look and feel.
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user experience design, user interface design, interactive maps, interaction primitives, interaction