On maps, topology and metaphors: how I’m making my engineering knowledge work for service design

If you look at my short bio on Medium, you will see that I have stated that I am a young designer and a young geospatial analyst. (Yes, it also says developer, too. But that’s my hidden superpower :)).

To some, it may look as if I still haven’t found myself, my “one true calling”, but others who skip the stereotype and devote time to talk to me know that I’m getting the best out of both worlds, alongside my knowledge and skills, with a passion to serve a better cause.

In order to try to make available for you to see what I see when I step back and look at the bigger picture, we will got through some basic definitions to get to know the topic, strip away a lot of unnecessary stuff and debunk some myths!

So let’s start…

“A direction arrow etched in a white wall” by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash

To get you familiar with the terms I will be using, here are a few definitions:

Geodesy — The branch of mathematics dealing with the shape and area of the earth or large portions of it.
Geographic Information System (GIS) — An information system which allows the user to analyse, display, and manipulate spatial data, such as from surveying and remote sensing, typically in the production of maps.
User Experience (UX) — The overall experience of a person using a product such as a website or computer application, especially in terms of how easy or pleasing it is to use.
Service Design — 
Intentional and thoughtful design of internal and customer-facing activities needed to deliver a service.

In the real world, you can find different names for people within the geo-profession: surveyor, geodesist, geospatial professional, GIS analyst… it goes on and on. But by now you hopefully get the hangs of what it is reading the definitions above or being familiar with them from real life.

Photo by Andrew Ridley on Unsplash

I studied Geodesy and Geoinformatics at the University of Zagreb and now I’m doing design, majoring in Multimedia Computing.

My geodesy-related interests mostly lay in smart and sustainable cities, spatial analysis (data models) and cartography. My first, self-initiated project as a Head of IT Section was organising and delivering a one-day, international seminar for students titled “Roles of Geodesy and Geoinformatics in Sustainable Development” and my first ever published professional article was “Geospatial Science and Technology towards a Sustainable Future and Development”.

Currently, I am working as a UX Designer Intern at a mobile design and development agency, with a focus on UX Research and Strategy. For a long time, I had an itch for UX design that wouldn’t go away. It combined my enthusiasm for problem-solving and my fascination with human behavior. Because of that, my interests lie in UX and service design, mixed reality and cognitive computing.

At first, the only similarity you may see between these two topics, these two professions, may be just a couple of identical letters in the words, but there’s plenty more than that — believe me.

In order to comprehend that, we need to step away from the popular opinion that design is merely doing some visuals and sketching and geodesy is just some people with weird-camera-looking thingies on the streets seemingly photographing people and occasionally flying drones.

Also, this is not one of those type of articles where I state: “Oh, you have an object called a point in geodesy and you also have it in design! That’s a similarity!” No. I will cover this topic by explaining it on an example case, where I will include system actors and identify key connections. I’m also thinking of writing a full-on, scientific paper based on deep details analysis (because I love writing scientific papers).

Looking at the big picture

Even in his amazing book The Design of Everyday Things, Don Norman sets out in detail what it means for an interface to be intuitive, with one of the four key features being mappings: a feature closely related to metaphors, and is concerned with whether the properties and affordances of an object conform to “natural” patterns.

My question is: What happens if we analyze geographic concepts in the context of metaphors and discuss the relation between users’ views of space and GIS operations?

Spatial cognition concerns the study of knowledge and beliefs about spatial properties of objects (eg location, distance, direction etc.) and events in the world. In humans, cognitive structures and processes are a part of the mind, which emerges from a brain and nervous system inside of a body that exists in both, a social and physical world.

So, let’s say you have a project that will influence people’s lives for almost 20 years — a construction of a busy railway station, as told by Joost Holthuis from Edenspiekermann in his TED Talk. That means that the people have to live in an another situation that’s permanently changing, and you want to assure that they have a safe and pleasant stay in their surroundings.

Their environment will change. The spatial surrounding and properties they got accustomed to will change, possibly every day. The path that they are used to taking everyday to the platform that they need to go to will change. But, their needs are always the same — they want to travel from A to B.

In the same way how Google and some other map providing companies have the ability to show you traffic density and personalised recommendations because they have access to your location data, that same location data — paired with a deep understanding and analysis of it — can be used as a compass to designing successful services (the service in this case being a more pleasant passenger experience at the construction railway site).

And also, the same way how (again) Google with its Analytics suite can tell you exactly where your user is on the website, how much time does he spend on a particular page, where does he navigate to next — or does he even navigate further or does he drop off; we can, by monitoring location data and turning it into user flow, just like Google does, analyze what do passengers do once they enter the station and how successfully do they arrive to their wanted platform.

Photo by Karen Lau on Unsplash

Without realizing it, humans are actually developing cognitive maps which include knowledge of landmarks, route connections, distance and direction relations; nonspatial attributes and emotional associations as well.

By finding behaviour patterns and key moments in our explained project, by creating logical groupings and analyzing attributes — and doing that just by knowing the location of the individuals, we can map their paths and their behaviours (how do they move, in which direction, in which pattern, what distance, how much time do they spend at a certain point etc) and deduce what do they do and what problems do they see.

In that way, complex geographical information can be depicted to promote comprehension and effective decision-making, whether through maps, graphs, verbal descriptions, or animations. The exposure to new geographic information technologies alters human ways of perceiving and thinking about the world and it can be used to build a better future.

Getting the best out of both worlds

I believe we should approach these technologies as a unique tool, since they are infinitely transforming the way we work and function — and put it to good use with our natural ability to extract meaning from qualitative information. Because, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how much hard data we have in our hands, how many surveys we’ve done, or how many different methods we’ve used to analyze our data. If we don’t have a perspective on the human behavior involved, our insights have no power.

Several research issues concern how locational information is best displayed or communicated, and how the availability of such information might change people’s experiences and behaviours in space and place.

And that’s where design comes in.

I have realised that the amount of change I wanted to bring into the world could only be done not within engineering only, but starting with experience and design. Design has the capacity to change environments and processes to serve humanity and the public in a more efficient way. My broad knowledge of many engineering topics serves me to innovate, find different solutions, be more creative, and collaborate with experts in other fields effectively; and with design, I can make sense out of all the research and data analysis, put it into a perspective and design an experience others will love and find helpful.


Can you do this for other engineering professions? I would say very likely yes. The main thing is to be able to see that the underlying principles and methodologies are very similar (or all the same) and then continue to develop that kind of thinking. I am sure you will be able to map your previous knowledge from one profession to your current or new one, and that’s what matters.

I think that this capacity for digesting complex theories and principles and converting them into clear and actionable ideas and strategies as well as identifying the core thread that needs to be pulled in order to unravel others’ allows me to wrangle complexity to find the signal amongst the noise.

“The only way to do great work is to love the work you do.” Steve Jobs

My passion really lies where technology & design meet to help people in their lives.

I like to keep all my thoughts online for free, but if you enjoyed reading it and are feeling extra generous, you can now buy me a coffee, or a book, to support the blog! This goes straight back into sending quality content and towards my overhead costs for keeping it online.

Find me on Twitter & Instagram ❤️

This post was originally published on Medium.


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