November 26, 2017

GIS for Economic Development: Bad User Experience is the Silent Killer

Ron Bertasi

Key Takeaway: To compete and win, EDOs must provide an online GIS app with a simple, intuitive and efficient user experience. If businesses or site selectors become frustrated with a poorly designed app or cannot find critical data quickly and easily, they move on. The EDO risks elimination at this early stage, before it is even aware that it is under consideration. For this reason, bad user experience is “The Silent Killer.”

Economic development professionals are familiar with the overwhelming body of research showing that businesses and site selectors evaluate a preliminary set of locations by seeking out data anonymously on the EDO website, and rarely contact the EDO before doing so. Online screening is an early site elimination step, and EDOs not meeting the site selector’s needs don’t make it out of the online process.

Success in the online screening stage is all about providing a GIS app that makes finding critical data simple, intuitive, and efficient. Without the right user experience EDOs will be eliminated before they even know they were under consideration — even if their app contains the data site selectors are seeking. For this reason, at GIS WebTech we refer to bad user experience as “The Silent Killer.”

Why is user experience (UX) so important?

Research is clear: users prefer a site that is simple, well organized, and visual. Sites that don’t provide these features are quickly abandoned by users in favor of sites that do.  To compete and win in the competitive market for business attraction and retention EDOs must avoid the pitfalls of bad UX and provide an experience that keeps businesses and site selectors engaged.

What Are Examples of Bad UX to Avoid?

In talking to economic development organizations, businesses and site selectors, we heard three examples of bad UX repeatedly.

Outdated Design.  Most GIS products for economic development seem stuck in a time warp, with legacy designs reflecting the early days of software development. Site selectors and business people compare them to other map-based products they use every day – Google Maps, Zillow, Waze, ESRI’s ArcGIS Online and Business Analyst online – and the comparison readily highlights the shortfalls of most GIS products for economic development. Some examples of outdated design in comparison to the apps mentioned above:

          A map crammed inside a small inset box, rather than utilizing the entire screen.

          Property listings that cannot be viewed simultaneously with the map.

          No home button to get the user back where he/she started.

          Inability to export into multiple file formats or to share results directly with colleagues.

          No button to clear the map.

          Inability to use the roller on the top of the mouse to zoom in/out on the map.

Each of these may be a minor item on its own, but in aggregate they leave the user frustrated and wishing for a more responsive app. And these are just a handful of examples. We could include a lot more, but you get the idea. The cumulative effect of these limitations simply discourages use of the app.

Confusing Data Organization.  Businesses want access to demographic data, but the data must be well organized and easily accessible. Yet most apps for economic development require site selectors to search multiple pull-down menus listing only one- or two-word descriptions of data, in a frustrating and time-consuming process of trial and error. In contrast, site selectors told us they want access to a simple, icon-driven menu of demographic data. They expect demographic data to be in a single location, accessed via a visual menu with icons and intuitive categories that a user can see all at one time. They do not want to have to go through an exhaustive process of sampling pull-down menu after pull-down menu.

Slow Loading.  No one wants to wait more than a few seconds for data or information to load, including site selectors who must evaluate dozens of territories. Unfortunately, most GIS apps for economic development load very slowly. Some EDOs actually have warnings on their websites asking users to be patient due to slow load speeds! In today’s competitive environment economic development organization can’t afford to ask businesses to wait for long load times, and in today’s fast-paced world few site selectors will. How bad is it? One frustrated EDO President told us he clicked on his app to load it before going to lunch and when he returned over an hour later it was still loading. After pleading with his technology provider for help and getting no improvement, he took the app off his website even though he was still under contract with the provider. In his words, “No app is better than a bad app.”

This blog only touches the surface of the UX issues with GIS apps for economic development. Contact me at if you’d like to discuss this topic in more detail, or to see a demo of our just-released 4.0 technology – a great example of a winning UX designed to keep businesses and site selectors engaged.

In an upcoming blog we will discuss the crucial issue of what data EDOs need to provide. In the meantime, please feel free to contact me.


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