Day 7 Part II: Apple Maps is Better Than Google Maps

A side-by-side analysis of a driver's navigation experience.

emily chung

Apr 19, 2020



Hello, welcome to Part II of Emily's product roast series, where I'll be proving why Apple Maps is superior to Google Maps (in the US/Los Angeles/San Francisco where I've been able to test).
I'll be looking at the navigation functionality of both mobile apps here (for driving directions), not so much the search or location saving, nor any desktop functionality/UX. I won't be going into the history of the maps apps, nor the privacy policies (yet), but you can take your best guess on who's more secure with your data. 🤫

The Specs and Disclaimers

In December of 2019, when I firmly took a seat in the Apple Maps camp, I ran an experiment: driving from my house to a bar in Downtown LA called Beelman's (vegan-friendly food, great drinks, good vibes, would recommend). I looked up directions on my iPhone X (iOS 13) on both Apple Maps and Google Maps at the same time to get the best side-by-side analysis. This was at night so all my screenshots are in dark I realize this is not the most thorough data analysis, but I still stand by my claim.
I've only ever owned iOS devices and my laptops have always been Macs and I also own an Apple Watch so I'm perhaps very biased BUT.
1. Many hardcore Apple users are Google Maps fans and 
2. This is an analysis on design, usability, delight, and overall practicality of gestures, icons, and interfaces.
Lastly, I am not a designer, but I am a user with opinions.

Overall UI

Let's start with the same basic view on Apple Maps and Google Maps. On first glance, they look almost the same:
- A map with the same orientation with the route highlighted in blue
- A header with the next direction
- A footer with ETA information, a red CTA to end navigation
- They even both have little speed limit icons
Apple's UI feels cleaner and more modern, even though it's using a 3D map. The background of Apple's map is grayed out enough such that the 3D renderings don't feel clunky, cluttered, or overpowering. Even in downtown amongst skyscrapers, the virtual map feels navigable. Apple's dark theme is especially nicer on the eyes with a more tasteful grayscale and the perfect amount of contrast.
Google has an okay dark theme...but it's got a little too much contrast in the wrong places. There are a lot of elements that can fight for a user's attention and it's honestly harder to read in a dark environment (Superhuman wrote a great article on designing a delightful dark theme and explain what I'm talking about perfectly).

Usability and Readability

A lot of my qualms that are pointed out here might be from the differences in dark themes, but they're still worth digging into. While driving (or navigating for a driver), one doesn't need a map. One needs navigation. A real navigation product means easy to read and clear directions.
Apple provides a driver with a very obvious route signified by a thicker line highlighted in a bright blue against a gray background. On the other hand, Google provides a pretty informative map, but the blue route line is nearly the same brightness and weight as nearby streets. Because they look so similar, these elements might fight for the driver's attention.

Looking at an overview of my route, I want some information to give me a sense of where I am and what the rest of my journey will look like. I want to see big landmarks and common places, like freeways, universities, museums, and lakes to place me in the city.
Again, Apple gives the right amount of information against a pleasantly grayed out background. Lakes are blue and parks are green; freeways and highways are a warmer orange hue and other landmarks are brown. They're easy to see and identify, giving me a good sense of where I am: Beverly Hills or Melrose, Koreatown or Downtown.
Again, Google gives a little too much information. I don't need to know the names of two dozen streets between me and my destination. Their dark theme makes it difficult to differentiate elements in the map like streets vs. freeways vs. my actual route. The thin blue lines that mark freeways almost mean nothing to me in this layout. Also, Google made a lake black.
If I didn't have freeway and street names on Google's map, I probably wouldn't know where I was at all, even being an LA native. Apple's map tells me there's a lake that's north of a few freeways, and I know how the 10, 110, 101 interact such that I can deduce that I'm somewhere in Ktown.

Here's another parallel view of the same screens with the same information and the same guidance. To get to these screens, it's the same swipe up gesture from the footer and then tapping "Details" or "Directions." 
Right off the bat, it's pretty obvious that one is easier to view than the other. The large icons and big CTA's on Apple's map make it clear to a driver or navigator what options are available. Six circle buttons, easy to identify and tap on the screen.
Google, on the other hand, presents a monochrome list with small text. It looks clean, it would generally be considered good UI, but when one is driving, that list is going to take more time to read. Also..the first option is "Add a report"? The most likely to be used options might be "Directions," "Preview route," and "Search along route" and they're all mixed in the list.
Looking at the actual directions/details of my route, Apple uses a much larger font and bigger arrows. I used to hate this, but I realized how helpful and thoughtful that design decision is. It's clear to me that I'll be taking a left then a right then a right. I know how far I am from my next direction (4.9 miles). With Google, I have to squint a bit and then process straight, left, right, right. All the details of the directions are the same size font and they look like full on sentences that are all formatted differently. There is no heuristic to quickly skim and understand the directions since different steps have different levels of details--sometimes I'm told what lane to be in, other times I just get, "Turn right." Again, nice UI, bad UX. 

Actual Navigation

Finally, the two real differences that make Apple Maps superior in my navigating experience:
1. a bird's eye view when approaching a turn
2. getting directions in units of stoplights and stop signs.
The first seemed like a small detail until I missed multiple turns on Google Maps:

Here I am, getting the same directions, and on the right two screens, approaching my turn. Apple does this really great thing where the map zooms out and gives you a bird's eye view of your surrounding area. It's super clear where streets, side streets, and alleys are to help you not miss the turn. Nothing really creeps up on you, and you just feel well informed and...comfortable.
The screen on the very far right is the same direction, just a little closer to S Figueroa St and on Google Maps. With the map's orientation still in that "driving" point of view, depth perception feels off. It's difficult to determine how far you actually are from your next turn other than "150 ft" that's tucked in the upper left hand corner. How far is 150 feet anyway?
Side streets can pop up while you're driving, and even though Google told you that your turn is the very next street, the next alley kind of looks viable.
In these same screenshots, you get what I mean when I say Apple gives directions in units of stop lights. If you have voice commands on, Siri will tell you, "Pass this light, and on the next one, turn left." Rather than telling me useless information like, "In 150 ft, turn left," I get real context to my directions. It also better mimics what a real co-pilot would tell you to try to be helpful--looking at the upcoming streets to tell you when to get in the right lane, when you should prepare to turn. 

Thank you for reading my TED talk.

I've not properly delved into the history and the old, ugly flaws of Apple Maps, and while you may accuse me of bias because I am a hoe for Apple products and the absolute facade of ugly capitalism that is hidden behind a pretty luxury brand, you cannot deny Apple's superior usability in their maps app for driving directions.