Product Story: Making the new MapBrowser

Recently, we released the new version of MapBrowser, our web app for viewing and working with Nearmap's aerial imagery. We had a chat to Technical Product Manager for Apps Tash Ridley to find out more about what's involved in a major product update.

What’s your favourite feature in the new MapBrowser?

I think my favourite feature is the compass tool. I love how you can switch between Vertical and Panorama (Multiview) imagery quickly, just by clicking on the compass.

You click on N/S/E/W to switch to that view for Panorama imagery, and click on the centre to go back to Vertical. It just feels intuitive and nice to use.

What were the technical and UX reasons for creating a new version?

The new MapBrowser is built on a completely new tech stack which will allow us to build new features more easily. For example, you can now rotate the image in MapBrowser — something that sounds pretty simple, but wasn’t possible in MapBrowser Classic.

We also currently have two different interfaces for our Australian and U.S. customers, so another big benefit will eventually be having a single interface for all of our customers. This way, new features and improvements can be released to all of our customers at the same time.

You’re really passionate about human-centred design. What were some of the interactive design features you wanted to include in the new MapBrowser? Do you think we got there?

The number one thing I wanted to improve was the overall look and feel — to bring MapBrowser into the modern age! Customers use our product because of the imagery, so I wanted to make sure it’s as easy to view and work with as possible.

 the new mapbrowser interface. the most frequently-used tools have been moved to the top of the browser, and the old sidebar menu has been condensed to an icon in the top left that converts to a drop-down.

the new mapbrowser interface. the most frequently-used tools have been moved to the top of the browser, and the old sidebar menu has been condensed to an icon in the top left that converts to a drop-down.

The thing I love about product design is that we’re never finished. The power of getting this in front of all our customers is the feedback that we get — both positive (thanks everyone!) and, more importantly, the negative. This helps us refine the user experience further and even helps us identify and define new features.

What were some of the biggest challenges in getting the new features to work?

We believe that simplicity is key — and that’s much harder to deliver than you might think! That, and also trying to cater to everyone who currently uses MapBrowser Classic. Some things will change, which can take a little adjustment, but ultimately, the aim is to make things better overall now and in the future.

The new Measurable Obliques feature (launching later this quarter) was possibly the most technically challenging. The maths involved in figuring out how to measure the height of a building from a 2D photo were highly complex. But the tech team at Nearmap is incredibly smart and managed to wrap up all that hard-core number crunching in a pretty decent user interface.

What’s the product development process at Nearmap? Do you do short sprints? Partner programming? How do engineering and product work together?

We’re lucky in that our product team and engineering team work hand in hand. We follow an agile development methodology which is ultimately about how we approach the work, rather than being bound by particular practices like sprints.

Methodology aside, we’re focusing on making small changes and releasing things that provide value to our users as early as possible. This way, we can get something useful in the hands of our customers and get their feedback early, rather than building an entire complex feature or application in one go. That could take many months, and only at the finish would we discover it wasn’t the right thing and didn’t meet our customers' needs.

That’s why you’ll notice that not all the MapBrowser Classic features are available in the new MapBrowser right now; more features will be added over time. In fact, we’re currently working on adding georeferenced image export, and this will be released in the next few weeks.

Do you find it easier to reiterate an existing product, or to create something from whole cloth? What’s different about each process?

To be honest, I love both processes. The benefit of iterating on an existing product is that you usually have a great understanding of the feature or product and you have existing users to learn from. It’s then a matter of refining and simplifying it until you have something that is better than it was before.

With a clean slate, the exciting part is the discovery — what is the problem the user is trying to solve? Why do they need to solve it?

Lean methodology has a concept of “the five whys” as a technique to get to the heart of a problem.

My favourite analogy is this: A customer might ask for a 10mm drill bit. My response: “What do you want to do with it?" Customer: “Drill a hole in the wall.” Through the process of asking why, we discover the real problem to be solved, which is to hang a painting without leaving marks on the wall.

 Figuring out what the customer actually wants (and why) informs good product development strategy.

Figuring out what the customer actually wants (and why) informs good product development strategy.

Then the answer may very well be, “OK, here’s a 10mm drill bit.” But a better solution might be: “Here’s a heavy-duty sticky hook that won’t leave marks on the wall when you need to move the painting later.” Only by iterating and talking to the customer to understand their actual task can you design a truly user-centric product.

Product management is a delicate balance of project management skills, technical and design prowess, deep understanding of the customer, and a healthy dose of empathy. What’s the “special sauce” that distinguishes a good from a great product team?

I think the secret sauce is having the right balance of skills on the team, and above all, being great communicators. There has to be conversation, or it won’t work, no matter how smart the people are! It’s also important to have support from the organisation to try small experiments, talk to customers, and to learn. Without that support from the top down, it’s easy to spend a lot of time building the wrong thing.

Also, you have to let go of your own personal preferences and ego. You have to understand that you represent the user, but you are not the end user! So you need to be prepared for people to tear apart your product, and not take it too personally!

The new MapBrowser is going to enable some of our incredible new content, including Measurable Obliques. Given all the new kinds of content we’re envisioning for Nearmap, including our expanded suite of 3D capabilities, do you foresee building additional apps to join MapBrowser in the future?

Absolutely. And, I’m not sure!

I do think we’ll eventually have more than one app. Right now, if you think about it, we have our content as a product, and we have two ways to access it — MapBrowser and our API integrations.

Not all of our content is going to be deliverable by either of those methods. Certainly, some content will require different technology to consume it.

The biggest challenge will be to understand how our customers might use this content. While there’s a lot we already know as we work with customers on 3D, there are also a lot of unknowns — and that’s the fun part!

Where can people learn more about the new MapBrowser?

We’ve got some great resources available on our support site, and you can also visit our MapBrowser info page for recorded demos.

We’re also going to be travelling to six major Australian cities in February & March to meet customers in person and explain more about our recent and forthcoming product updates. Check out the Nearmap Focus schedule and make sure to RSVP early, as spots are extremely limited.

If you have feedback on the new MapBrowser, don’t hesitate to let us know! Get in touch at support@nearmap.com, or directly via the "feedback" option in the new MapBrowser at https://apps.nearmap.com/maps.

 Learn about the new MapBrowser directly from our product team at our Nearmap Focus roadshow in February and March. RSVP:  https://goto.nearmap.com/nearmap-focus-02-2018/

Learn about the new MapBrowser directly from our product team at our Nearmap Focus roadshow in February and March. RSVP: https://goto.nearmap.com/nearmap-focus-02-2018/