Clearly Express Your Business Map Message

Your very first mapping experience probably happened through a childrens’ book.  The Sponge Bob Kids History Research Institute reports most children are exposed to the concept of ‘mapping’ by the age of two years. For children, maps are typically depicted as guides to where the secret treasure is located, perhaps for Aladdin or Captain Hook. But as an adult, maps become more visual aids than treasure maps.

Over the holiday break I noticed two map infographics circulating in my LinkedIn and Facebook feeds. (Hey, so I was working a little? It’s not like I was checking my LinkedIn at a New Year’s Eve party. I’m not that guy.)  One map showed the most common Internet searches by state.  Maine’s was Amy Schumer.  And the other map showed, again by state, the most likely cause of death on average compared with other states.  Maine’s was the Flu – which surprised me. Get your shots people.

Now I found both of these maps to be visually informative. I glanced at them briefly and I quickly understood what they were trying to communicate. This, to me, is a critical element of a successful map or business map. Maps do not need to be complicated, colorful, or multilayered to get the job done. In fact, the more complicated or busy your map becomes, the less that map may communicate. A lot depends on knowing your map audience. What is your map audience looking for?

As Ben Carson, the one-time GOP leading candidate for president recently found out, maps need to be proof read. Take time creating and publishing your maps.  Leave them for a while. Come back later and view the map with fresh eyes. Look for glaring inconsistencies, or simple mistakes. Ask a colleague to review your map.  Try to see your map from the perspective of your map users.

Ben’s map person would have done well to examine that odd-shaped New England section before releasing it to a world eager to poke holes in his boss’ reputation. I include this video link to show how maps can generate the wrong result if you are not careful. Do not fall into this trap. Maps, like any other document, are subject to human error.

So no matter what mapping tools you apply, be thoughtful and careful with your map creation. Your map is a visual aide, not the busy kitchen table catch-all of spatial ideas. Keep it clean and neat. It is often valuable to consider what not to include in your business map:

Base Map-Data – Does your map require base-map data?  Perhaps just state outlines will do the trick. Digital base-map data is without a doubt one of the coolest things our generation has loosed on the world, and you may have access to the most accurate and up-to-date data available. Just make sure that a base-map data layer adds value to your map’s intent. All business mapping software should let you adjust this feature.

Administrative Districts – What administrative district – zip code, state, county – layer makes the most sense for your map view? It’s not always zip codes, although zip code maps are most commonly created, in my experience. Perhaps your business analysis is more effectively communicated over counties?  This could be because counties are easier to visualize nationwide, or because population by county displays better than by zip code, or perhaps because county population data adds more value to your analysis than the zip code population. Think it through. It only takes a moment.

Map Extent – At what zoom level of detail should your map be presented? A zoom extent covering the whole contiguous USA map may feel like it defines your map project, but the details may be more pertinent by zip code, in which case four separate regional map views might display more effectively for your map audience. A map describing the density of hospitals across the USA works at a USA wide level, while a demographic population map classifying all the Methodist Churches by congregation size might work better regionally.

Label Definition – Your map may or may not include state labels, zip code labels or imported data labels. Make sure they are required before turning them on.  If your map is displaying numeric values by zip code or county, displaying numeric zip code labels may create an incomprehensible map for your viewers. Too many numbers. Often a business map can be set to display a pop-up label upon mouse hover or click. Experiment with the different label options in your mapping software – large or small text sizes, various text-box color backgrounds, and text formatting options. Do you really need state labels to display?  Perhaps your map audience already knows the state names, for the most part? I know I do ( I know – Map Geek!) In general, keep the map simple.

Boundary Definition – Most business mapping software will allow adjustments to boundary lines. View your map carefully and choose appropriate line thicknesses and colors. Try different options to see what works best for your map. You may find in your industry, with your particular type of analysis, certain colors are expected or display data in away that rings truer with your map viewers.

Point Color Coding – Like boundaries, put some thought into how you color code points that you’ve imported. For instance, if I show a 7,000 location point hospital map, I typically make my points small and dark so the density of facilities by city is obvious. Should I label each point? Why would I do that? Only do it if you have to. Perhaps turning on just a few key regional point labels better communicates your map’s point.

My Busy Map

A cluttered map.

Most of the maps we make in our business work are not going viral like the Ben Carson map. But many of our maps are critical to our business processes. Think about your map presentation. As a business manager, you are always communicating with higher-ups, peers, or associates who work for you. Each of those audiences is looking for different map messages.

Management wants to see dollars, risks, and operational efficiencies – the high level business view. Avoid too many details. Steer clear from decimal points, extra map layers, and random data that invites criticism.

Your peers may be watching work flows carefully. Some peers will be looking to poke holes in your presentation (you know who they are.) Don’t give them easy errors to attack you with. It’s distracting for everyone and defeats the business purpose of your mapping efforts.

The people who work for you are looking for clear direction and leadership. Avoid mixed messages and map clutter. Turn off superfluous layers. Use multiple maps where operational issues pile up. Maps can be great tools for sharing progress associated with company goals and objectives.

Think it through, proof read your maps keep it simple and maybe you’ll be president someday.

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Contact: Geoffrey Ives geoffives@spatialteq.com (800) 425-9035, (207) 939-6866

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