Information Services and the User Experience in the Geographic Information Community

Caitlin Dempsey


Members of the geographic information community can be considered heavy users of information services.

Geographic information (GI) users are  “super-encounterers” (Erdelez , 1999); information is encountered regularly and is an “important element of their information acquisition” (p. 26).   

Whether it is searching for geographic data, tutorials on how to use spatial tools, or software questions, GI Users access information services on a regular basis.  To gain some insight into the user experience, I interviewed a female GIS Analyst working for a conservation agency in California.

How the GIS community searches for information

Members of the geographic information community tend to regularly access three main information services. 

When searching for and retrieving geographic data, geoportals, which provide access to geographic information federated from a multitude of sources, are favored by GI users. 

For finding information about obscure geographic data, analysis tools, or software questions, GI users tend to gravitate towards community driven knowledge bases such as GIS Stack Exchange ( and GeoNet ( 

When those two search paths prove unsuccessful, using a general search engine such as is employed.

GIS information search outcomes

What makes an information experience memorable to a geographic information user?

Regardless of the type of information service used by a GI user, there are three main outcomes that will determine if the “holy trinity” of User Experience (UX) of “usable, useful, and desirable” will be met (Schmidt, 2015).

First, the GIS user is successfully and quickly able find the searched for information. 

Second, the information contains adequate ancillary information to be able to make an informed decision about its usefulness.  A GIS Analyst described her repeated frustration in the lack of accurately characterized geographic information as a barrier to a positive user experience, explaining, “I usually put something up on a map and more likely than not, it is not what I am expecting.” (personal communication, March 1, 2015). 

Lastly, the information should easily retrieved. GI users can sometimes pinpoint the agency that has the needed geographic information on the Internet, but the information has not been made available for downloading. 

The GIS Analyst explained that tracking down a contact at that agency and retrieving a copy of the information can be a time consuming and frustrating process (personal communication, March 1, 2015).  Accessing information services that allow for ease, familiarity, simplicity, and quality are core components of a positive UX within the geographic information community (Bivens-Tatum, 2010).


Geoportals essentially function like virtual libraries in that these online repositories serve as places of access to information (Schmidt, 2015).

Providing an optimal user experience for the geographic information community can therefore be appropriately addressed by Ranganathan’s Five Laws of library science (1931) by substituting book for geographic data, GI user for reader, and geoportal for library. 

The first law states that “Books are for use” and the second law, “Every reader his [or her] book.” 

So too, geographic data must be made available for use by the geographic information community.  This means provide easy access to geographic data by making it available online and easily downloadable and the data should also be available to all users. 

The third law, “Every book its reader” in geographic terms means that all geographic data should be accompanied by metadata that allows datasets to be discoverable.

The fourth law, “Save the time of the reader” is a critical aspect of the user experience (Schmidt, 2015).  Using information services should be quick and easy for GI users. 

The fifth and final law, “The library is a growing organism,” has its parallels in the environment of geoportals.  Like libraries, geoportals must change and adapt as technology and GIS user needs evolve.


Bivens-Tatum, W. (2010). Imagination, sympathy, and the user experience. Library Journal, 8. Retrieved from

Erdelez, S. (1999). Information encountering: It’s more than just bumping into information. Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science 25(3).

Schmidt, A. (2015, March). Lecture on User Experience. Personal collection of A. Schmidt. San Jose State University, San Jose, CA.

Ranganathan, S. R. (1931). The five laws of library science. Retrieved from$b99721

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.

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