Tasks in Using Maps

In the previous discussions consideration has been given to the ways maps are used in broad perspectives.  Cartographers, Educators and Psychologists look at the individual tasks involved in using maps so that we can learn how users interact with maps. 

Olson (1976) carried out a study of map communication using some rather simple thematic maps employing graduated circles in one case and dot maps in another case.  For her study she identified three levels of tasks.  (ibid. 152)

  • Level One involves comparing the characteristics of individual map symbols such as shape, relative size, etc.

  • Level Two involves recognizing the patterns, if any, of the grouping of symbols on the map as a whole

  • Level Three involves using the map for decision making or to gain knowledge about the subject and integrate the knowledge from the map symbols with other information 

She then tested the effects of two different activities on the ability of users to accomplish each of these tasks.  One activity was to train the map readers.  The other activity was to change the appearance of the map by design of the symbols.  Her prime objective was to identify ". . . how design changes or user training on a specific task affects performance on other tasks both at the same level and at other levels." (ibid. 153)

This study is presented to show that the map use activity consists of a number of tasks.  These tasks are hierarchical in that the user has to move through the level one task before going to the next level.  In controlled studies it is fairly easy to identify specific tasks, as Olson did in this study. 

The identification and articulation of map use tasks is dependent on the researchers studying the subject.  There are no standard map use tasks that everyone agrees on.  Of course, we should expect that the strategies that individuals apply to different tasks will vary somewhat from user to user, operating with different maps in different map use environments.

Lobben in an examination of navigational map reading argues that . . . different elements of the map (and likely, different types of maps) will invoke the use of different human cognitive processes, controlled by different sections of the human brain, and require the completion of different tasks, which are approached with different strategies.  (Lobben, 2004, 270)   Reflecting on a survey of literature in psychology and cartography over many years she noted  . . . while some studies provide insight into the cognitive processes and strategies associated with specific map-reading tasks, many of these tasks, strategies and processes have yet to be identified and, possibly more importantly, understood.  But, this understanding must begin with identification; researchers should first identify the map-reading tasks, and then the more complex job of identifying the associated strategies, and the processes may begin.  In short, we must know the object of study before it can be studied.  (ibid., 270-271)

These studies demonstrate that map reading is a complex operation that cartographers, educators and psychologists are working on but still do not understand very well.  We should remember that map reading is only the least complex operation compared to map analysis and map interpretation.  So, if experts are ignorant of the basic processes of map reading, they must be even more ignorant of the more advanced processes of analysis and interpretation.

Indeed, we cannot be proud of our map use skills for as Muehrcke (1996, 277) noted  "And, as most studies have shown, . . . less than half of the adult population in the United States can perform even the most basic tasks related to using maps." 

But, some people can read, analyze and interpret maps.  Rather than contend with the processes of understanding how we read maps, Muehrcke argues that "If we are really concerned about the map user, the basis for making much bigger and quicker gains is already within our grasp.  We merely need to catalogue and teach the strategies practised by expert map makers and users."  (ibid.)


Lobben, Amy, 2004,  Tasks and Cognitive Processes Associated with Navigational Map Reading: A Review Perspective,  The Professional Geographer, 56(2),  pp. 270-81.

Muehrcke, Phillip C., 1996, "The Logic of Map Design," in Clifford H. Wood and C. Peter Keller (eds.), Cartographic Design: Theoretical and Practical Perspectives. New York: John Wiley & Sons, pp. 271-278.

Olson, Judy M., 1976, A Coordinated Approach to Map Communication Improvement, The American Cartographer, 3(2),  pp. 151-159.

You are at the bottom of the page on Tasks of Using Maps.  This is one of four pages on the uses of maps.  Complements of this page are Map Functions and the Levels of Map Use.  I present my classification of Generic Map Uses in the master page of Map Use: The Many Dimensions.


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