Multiple maps at different levels of detail

People don’t have one, complete, integrated Google Earth map in their heads that they zoom in and out of at will. Instead, there are several, that vary in some predictable ways, and people often have difficulty integrating them.

In the real world, it can be hard for people relate information between their mental maps. They might have a map of the subway routes they usually take and a map of the city streets they walk, and still be disoriented when they get off at an unusual stop.

In the digital world, people often understand an area of a site they’re used to differently than they do the whole thing, and there may be inconsistencies between those two understandings. When a designer does research, this means  that there may be several, contradictory mental models to understand per user, not one.


Avraamides, Marios N., and Jonathan W. Kelly. “Multiple Systems of Spatial Memory and Action.” Cogn Process, 2008

We don’t create one holistic view of the spaces we know, we keep lots of them from different perspectives, points in time, and at different levels of detail. We choose among them depending on our needs and only relate them to each other when we absolutely have to (p. 99)

Golledge, Reginald G. “The Nature of Geographic Knowledge.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, vol. 92, no. 1, 2002, pp. 1–14.

We have different kinds of knowledge about different scales, knowledge becomes more categorical as you progress to global scale. p. 8