Improving the International User Interface in Computer Cartography. Proceedings of the 16th International Cartographic Conference 1993, pp. 870-880.

International User Interface Design in Computer-Assisted Cartography


Michael P. Peterson

Department of Geography / Geology

University of Nebraska at Omaha



Most computer programs for cartographic applications were developed with little consideration for their use in other countries, thereby limiting their general usefulness. The major cultural component of a computer program is language. The introduction of graphical user interfaces has made possible the creation of less language-dependent programs. However, most current computer programs, even those developed within a window-menu environment, still contain words as the central part of the command structure. The use of graphical menu palettes to control the execution of a particular program for thematic mapping is examined. Various strategies are implemented for entirely removing the language component of the user interface. The major obstacle is the development of graphical symbols that are meaningful to people from different cultures. Standard symbols have already emerged for common graphical operations. The ability to interact with the program to learn the meaning of graphical symbols remains the most important aspect of the program interface.



As computer-assisted cartography becomes more common, the way that people interact with computers to create maps is assuming a greater importance. An international aspect of the problem is the cultural component of a computer program. This component of a computer program for cartography is apparent in a variety of ways including different cartographic practices or different ways of expressing numbers. However, because a word-based command structure is normally used to direct the execution of a program, the most serious obstacle for the acceptance and use of a computer program in another culture is language.

As a result of initial developments in North America and the economic importance of the software industry to the United States, the english language has emerged as the most common language in computer programs. Most existing programs for cartographic applications use an english language command structure. Even programs written in other countries will often use the english language as the defacto standard for interacting with the computer. Presently, it is essentially impossible for a cartographer who is not familiar with the english language to create maps with the computer.

The overall objective of this research is to improve the human interface with maps by improving the user-interface with computer mapping programs. The specific objective is to create a computer mapping program that would be usable by english and non-english speakers alike. This will be accomplished by designing and implementing a more international, graphical user-interface based on icons for an existing computer mapping program. Before proceeding, it is important to examine the significance of the user interface and the graphical user interface to cartography.

I. Interface in Cartography

The User Interface -

The interaction between man and computer has been of concern since the advent of computers but has been of particular concern since the introduction of the microcomputer in the early 1980's (Bass 1991, Bodker 1990, Bolt 1984, Carroll 1987, Card 1983, Gardiner & Christie 1987, Hamilton 1990, Myers 1988, Norman & Draper 1986, Shneiderman 1987, Thimbly 1990). An important concept in relation to this interaction is interface. The word 'face' indicates a junction or boundary between two completely different systems. An example of a face would be the boundary between two substances that do not mix, such as oil and water. If these two substances are placed in a container, a face or boundary forms between them. Interface refers then to the interaction across such a face. Interface is used to describe the set of rules and conventions by which one organized system communicates with another. Clearly, the inner-workings of a computer are vastly different from the intellectual constructs of the human mind. The user interface represents the bridge between these two systems.

In the late 1960's, Alan Kay, at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) began to pursue a particular user interface design based on a 'desk-top' metaphor. He envisioned the computer screen as an analog to a desk that includes a variety of documents and tools to manipulate them (typewriter, calculator, etc.). Kay's research at PARC eventually produced a number of revolutionary computers including the Star. Released in the late 1970's and priced at $16,000, the Star had a bit-map display, used a hand-held pointing device called a mouse, displayed information in separate windows, and supported pop-up menus that appeared on the screen in response to a click of the mouse. The Star represented a psychologically motivated approach to the user interface, emphasizing a consistent, well-thought-through model (Smith,,1982). It has changed how we think of user interfaces.

The Graphical User Interface -

The Xerox Star implemented a graphical user interface (GUI). Although the concept of GUI dates to the early 1970's at PARC, it was not until the mid-1980's with the introduction of the Apple Macintosh that the potential of this type of interface began to be realized. The Macintosh implemented the desk-top metaphor complete with icons, windows, dialogs and the mouse. Other features of the Macintosh included a high-resolution bit-map screen, object-oriented graphics facilitating the moving and resizing of graphic objects, and an interface to laser-printing through a page description language called Postscript (Apple, 1985; Chernicoff, 1985, p. x ). The Macintosh microcomputer has since earned the reputation for having an intuitive, easy-to-learn operating system. In fact, the term 'Macintosh-like' has now replaced the once popular term of 'user-friendly' to describe an easy-to-use program. New operating systems for microcomputers, such as MS-Windows from Microsoft, now incorporate many Macintosh-like features such as pull-down menus, windows and dialogs.

Creating a true graphical user interface has remained an elusive goal. Macintosh programs still rely on words for a significant part of the command structure. In actuality, very little of the Macintosh interface is graphical. Only the representation of the files as icons and the graphical menu palettes that are implemented by some of the programs could be construed to be graphical. The remainder of the interface is still based on words - the menu items, the text within the dialogs, etc. The reason that computer programs still rely on words is not because of hardware or software restrictions in implementing a graphical user interface but because of a tendency to think that words are superior to graphics in communicating a message. We know from dealing with maps that this is not always true.

Maps themselves implement a graphical user interface in the sense that graphical symbols are used in the place of words to communicate a message. If graphic symbols can be used on a map to communicate what is often very complex information, then surely it should be possible to use graphic symbols in a program to indicate program use and thereby create a more international user interface.

Program Localization -

The international market for computers and programs is expanding rapidly. In 1990, for example, Apple computer earned greater than half of its revenue from international sales. Most of the major microcomputer software companies publish versions of their programs in other countries. The Apple Macintosh operating system itself is available in over 20 different languages.

'Localization' refers to the process of adapting a program to a particular country or language. At one time this involved the translating of all words in the input and output sections of the source code and the subsequent re-compilation of the program. Today, programs are split into so-called 'code' and 'resource forks.' The code fork is written and compiled in a traditional computer language such as FORTRAN or C. If done properly, this part of the program does not contain any words. The resource fork, created with programs like ResEdit, contains the definition of the menus, windows and dialogs - in short, all components of a program that would need to be localized. A company interested in localizing a program will usually have a representative in a foreign country translate the menu items, window names and dialogs with a resource editing program. The source code itself is left unchanged. Figure 1 depicts the 'File' menu from the Apple Finder program in both english and german.

Figure 1. The File menu from the Apple Macintosh Finder in English and German


Localization is normally synonymous with translation. However, there are other aspects of the program that may need to be converted as well. For example, when writing a number in Germany, the meaning of the comma and the period is reversed. A number such as 1,234,567.89 would be written in Germany as 1.234.567,89. In China, commas are not used at all in numbers, e.g., 1234567.89. These formatting differences can usually be implemented within the resource fork as well so that the source code need not be altered.

In most cases, the localization process essentially involves the translation of an english language command interface into that of another language. It is generally not a process of creating a more graphical user interface that is less dependent on words. In most cases, the source code of a program would have to be altered to implement a more graphical user interface. There is also a general belief that words communicate a message better that graphics. This attitude is particularly apparent in North America where the dominance of the english language makes it easy to ignore the existence of other forms of communication. Recognizing this and the ability of graphics to communicate a message, it should be possible to create a more international user interface for a computer program, particularly for a computer mapping program.


II. The Program

This research to create a more international user interface is based on a computer mapping program that has been written by the author for the Apple Macintosh computer. The program, called MacChoro, has been designed for the creation of choropleth maps that use shadings to represent value by area. The program incorporates the Macintosh user-interface components including the use of icons, windows, menus, heirarchical menus, dialogs and the integration of the mouse as a pointing device.

Intended for the analysis of spatial data as well as the creation of maps for publication, the program integrates a spreadsheet, a variety of data classification options and the capability of creating map animations. Data is entered in the spreadsheet window and the map is displayed in the graphics and reduced-view graphics windows. Six different methods of data classification are implemented: standard deviation, equal interval, quantiles, natural breaks, user-defined ranges and an 'unclassed' option. Once the map has been defined in memory as a series of polygon objects, the depiction of a new variable or classification is accomplished in under five seconds. For viewing individual maps at a faster rate, a map animation can be created by placing a series of maps in memory as bit-map representations. These maps may depict different variables and/or different classifications of the same variable. Animation sequences can be played back at speeds up to 60 per second and can be used to examine the effect of data classification or the change in the distribution of a variable over time. Animation sequences can also be saved to disk and later re-played.

Windows, menus and dialogs are the three major components of the user interface. Three separate window types are used in the program - a spreadsheet data window, a graphics window and an editor window (Figure 2). Pull-down menus contain the individual commands including the classification of the data and for the drawing of the map, legend, bar scale and neatline. Two types of dialogs are used in the program. Option-dialogs are used in the program to control the various options. Specialized dialog items such as buttons, radio controls and scroll bars allow the mouse to be used to specify options. Message-dialogs serve to communicate a message to the user. This can be a simple error message such as "Printer not connected" to a sophisticated concept such as "This data classification procedure is not acceptable because the data are not normally distributed."

Figure 2. The three window types used in the MacChoro Program.


III. Creating a Graphical User Interface

In creating a more international user interface for the MacChoro program, three aspects of the program had to be made graphical: 1) the menus; 2) the option-dialogs; and 3) the message-dialogs. Windows need not be made graphical because they do not contain text. The following is a description of how a graphical user interface was created for the program.

It was found that the interpretation of a graphical symbol is much more dependent upon surrounding symbols than words are on surrounding words. With words, for example, it is possible to create a menu with a variety of dissimilar commands. A graphical menu must be more logically structured to facilitate the recognition of individual symbols. Therefore, it was not possible to simply substitute a graphical symbol for each command. Rather, the entire menu structure of the program had to be altered. An example of this restructuring can be seen with the conversion of the pull-down menus to palette menus.

Converting menus-

Figure 3 depicts the palette menus used to draw items on the screen and the palette menu that is used to specify options. Previously, these menu items were in separate menus. In the menu palette version, a more logical ordering of menu items is necessary. The black triangle in the setup icons indicates that a dialog opens by selecting this item.

Figure 3. Graphical Patlettes using the program to draw and specify options.


Converting Option-dialogs-

Figure 4 depicts an example of an option dialog that is used to control the depiction of the legend and its graphical user interface counterpart.

Figure 4. Text and graphical versions of the legend setup dialog.


Converting Message-dialogs-

Communicating a message with graphics can be easily done when the message is simple. Simple 'information', 'caution' and 'stop' icons are incorporated into the Macintosh interface. To communicate a concept is more difficult. For example, the standard deviation classification option used in the program expects the data to be normally distributed. If it is not, a message is presented that warns the user that the classification method is not suitable but that the values could be made more normal if they were converted to their Log base 10 equivalents (Figure 5). To understand the message completely, one needs to know somethings about statitistics.

Figure 5. Text and graphic versions of a message dialog.


The best solution to the problem of communicating a message with a dialog is to write the program in such a way that such 'error' messages are not required. For example, it would be possible to check the data for normality before making the standard deviation classification an option for selection. In other words, lead the user away from mistakes before he has an opportunity to make them. In this way, you avoid the need for a dialog.



The microcomputer is becoming a more standard part of our lives. Its influence on how we use maps will certainly be extensive. To best serve the needs of a new generation of map users both in the United States and in other countries, cartographers must be involved in the design of more international user interfaces for computer mapping programs. This particular project is an initial effort in this area.

Language can be eliminated in most aspects of a program through a combination of graphical symbols and a sophisticated interface. Only the cartographic or statistical concepts, however, that underlie the program need to be explained with words. The meaning of graphical symbols that direct the program can be learned by trial and error, eliminating the use of a manual. This requires the curiosity of the program user to learn program usage, often lacking in the more goal-oriented adult population.

The most important observation is that the GUI has to be incorporated from the beginning. The writing of a program should begin with the interface design. This interface is then implemented in a graphic editing program where the symbols are designed and initially tested. In this way, programs can be made both easier to use and more accepted in other parts of the world.




Apple Computer, Inc. (1987). Human Interface Guidelines: the Apple Desktop Interface. Reading, MA.: Addison-Wesley, 1987, pp. 144.

Bass, Len. Developing Software for the user interface. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co., 1991.

Bodker, Susanne (1990). Through the interface: a human activity approach to user interface design. Hillsdale, N.J.: L. Erlbaum, pp. 169.

Bolt, Richard A. The Human Interface: Where people and Computers Meet, Lifetime Learning, Belmont, Ca., 1984.

Carroll, John M. (ed.). Interfacing Thought, MIT Press, 1987.

Card, Stuart K., Moran, Thomas P., and Newell, Allen. The Psychology of the Human-Computer Interaction, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Hillsdale, NJ (1983), 469 pages.

Chernicoff, Stephen. Macintosh Revealed: Unlocking the Toolbox, Vol. 1, Hayden Publishing, 1985.

Gardiner, M. and Christie, B. (1987). Applying cognitive psychology to user-interface design. New York: Wiley, pp. 372.

Hamilton, W. Ian et. al. ed. (1990). Simulation and the user interface. New York: Taylor & Francis, pp. 269.

Martin, James. A Breakthrough in Making Computers Friendly: The Macintosh Computer, Prentice-Hall, 1985.

Myers, Brad A. (1988). Creating user interfaces by demonstration. Boston: Academic Press, pp. 276.

Norman, Donald A. and Draper, Stephen W. User Centered System Design, Lawrence Erlbaum, Hillsdale, N.J., 1986.

Shneiderman, Ben. Designing the User Interface: Strategies for Effective Human-Computer Interaction, Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1987.

Smith, D.C., Irby, C., Kimball, R., Verplank, W., & Harslem, E. (1982) Designing the Star user interface. Byte, 7(4), 242-282.

Thimbly, Harold. (1990). User Interface Design. New York: ACM Press, pp. 470.