At this stage in the development of the Art Maps application, a benchmarking exercise was carried out and about forty web-based and mobile applications currently accessible online were analysed, out of which a shortlist of thirteen were selected for a more detailed comparison. The criteria to choose the shortlisted applications was for them to either use a digital map to present their content, or to have an essential spatial concern in the development of the content itself. The resulting selection ranged from museum-developed applications to social networking, including hiking and tourist guides, digital artistic exercises and history and heritage databases. A full list of the applications shortlisted for comparison is available at the end of this post.
The aim of this exercise was to identify the functionalities and design features that set Art Maps aside from the rest of applications on the market, and at the same time to recognise other applications’ strengths and possibly draw inspiration from their most popular features. The applications were analysed in terms of their usability, with particular attention to practical and aesthetic aspects that – although could separately be considered minor – can in conjunction affect the user’s quality of engagement.
A formal analysis of the map showed that more than half of the applications analysed chooses a basic Street Map to browse content, while only six of them offer a combination of Satellite (five), Hybrid (two), Terrain (four), Street View (five) and Google Earth (one) views.
The system to mark objects – from artworks to Facebook friends, from historic buildings to recorded sounds – is quite consistent throughout, with most of the applications using either dots (six) or pins (four) of different colours, with a minority (three) presenting the object’s image – being this an artwork, a photo or a drawing – directly onto the map.
When tapped, the majority of markers (ten) opens a window on the map’s page, which previews a thumbnail image of the object geo-tagged there, and gives some basic information about it – such as title/name, date and brief description when applicable. Clicking on the window usually brings the user to a new page where they can access further information and a bigger-size image of the object, or the friend’s profile in the case of social networking.
Six of the thirteen applications also offer the option to create a trail, and of these, five also allow users to follow a trail previously created by other users. Among these, three applications would send instructions to users on their mobile devices, to direct their steps and actions in the real world; users would then be prompted to share their experience uploading images and comments about their route, so that others can browse and undertake it afterwards. In the other two applications, trails can be uploaded by users only once their experience has concluded, usually as a combination of factual data – such as length of the route, number of sights/stops etc – and images. All these five applications allow users to browse, select and comment other users’ trails and experiences.
Another application makes available a database of preloaded trails, which users can filter by type of experience (e.g. ‘Castles’ or ‘Great for kids’) and UK region, to shortlist a number of suitable trails that can then be browsed on the map one at a time.
Most applications (ten) invites users to share and upload content, with five specifically asking for people’s creative responses – in the form of photos, drawings, text and sounds – and other five asking for people’s first-hand knowledge about an area, a historic period, an experience or a particular object/building – which in some instances takes the form of a quasi-professional article, in others offers a more personal perspective, and sometimes results in a mixture of these two.
According to these preliminary results – and trying not to spoil the application’s launch! – Art Maps seems to offer a unique balance of advanced technical features (e.g. multiple ways to visualise the map, the articulation of the Artworks Pages and much more), creative design (e.g. the sleek interface and different pin’s icons) and an invitation for user-generated contribution ranging from first-hand knowledge about specific locations and artworks, to a more personal, creative response to place and art, or to a combination of these.
Applications shortlisted for comparison: