| 4 minute read |

As most of us are already aware, the days of sharing maps via PDF or zipped shapefiles are numbered. Interactive web maps are now the method of choice when it comes to publishing and sharing Geodata.

If you’re not designing web maps already, it’s only a matter of time before you will be, so we’ve prepared this short list of the most common web map design mistakes.

Mistake #1: Making maps that aren’t visually engaging

The internet is the home of the limited attention span. When making desktop maps you’re usually assured of a captive audience but for web maps nothing could be further from the truth. Your web map will be competing with a host of other open browser tabs all containing colourful and engaging websites that are vying for your users attention.

Your web map needs to be able to stand shoulder to shoulder with those distractions by using the same tactics as regular websites:

  • Bright / bold colours
  • Large, easy to read fonts
  • A clean uncluttered interface

London Demographics map

Mistake #2: Making maps that don’t tell a story

Once again to push back against the limited attention span of web surfers, your map needs to get straight to the point. You need to produce focused maps that try to convey a single message in a clear and concise manner. You need need to follow the advice of Steve Krug’s classic 2005 book “Don’t Make Me Think”. If the message contained in your map isn’t loud and clear your web map will experience a high abandonment rate.

Could a Fukushima link Nuclear Accident Happen in the United States?

Mistake #3: Creating web map portals that contain many datasets

This point follows on from the last. The opposite of the “map story” is the map portal. A web map portal tries to cram as many datasets as possible into a single web map. This may be the easiest way to publish your data, but it is far from the best user experience and most users simply won’t have the patience to explore all of the layers presented.

Your users will be better server by a web portal that contains a separate page for each dataset with a link to a story map that best showcases the usage of that specific dataset. Individual pages will also make it much easier for your users to discover the datasets via a search engine.

London Demographics Portal

Mistake #4: Making your web map look like a desktop GIS

“The most common mistake in design is to assume that the users of your design see the world in the same way as you.” 

Most users of your map will have never used desktop GIS software and their interactions with digital maps will most likely have been with Google Maps. They will expect the same level of simplicity in your web map application.

Try to avoid:

  • Big legends with many layers that can be turned on and off
  • Mouse navigation that differs from Google Maps
  • Not having a clear map title or description
  • Complex toolbars full of non-essential tools


This map about Deforestation in Cambodia from 1976 to 2013 has a concise and clear legend, and is simple to understand and explore.


Mistake #5: If in doubt, take it out

In short, you should strive to make your application as simple as possible in order to improve usability. You should strive to remove features from your web map rather than add them and the more you can remove the better. It’s time for that measuring tool and overview map to get the chop! Does your thematic map of U.S state poverty rates really need a search function?

If a feature doesn’t in some way help to convey the story of your map then it has no place being there and should be removed. The same goes for map layers, if a layer isn’t adding something to the narrative of your map story then it needs to go. Also remember to remove any attributes from your identify popup windows that aren’t related to the theme of the map, they are nothing but a distraction.


Web mapping isn’t a new paradigm it’s simply a new medium. A medium that’s very easy to transfer your existing map making skills to, provided that you remember that when it comes to the world of the web, less is always more.