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Tips for supporting your new Web GIS users across your organization

Have you rolled out Web GIS solutions to your broader organization, or are you about to do so? Chances are you’re going to need to support those who are new to the science of where without hiring someone to answer questions all day. I’ve had many discussions about this over the last few years, so I want to share some tips and resources I’ve gathered in case you want to leverage them as part of your own launch.

I think it’s fair to say that most recent newbies to Web GIS solutions like web apps aren’t very familiar with GIS other than the word “map”. As soon as you talk to them about queries, datasets and web layers, they start tuning you out. To ensure the solutions you’re creating and sharing with folks across your organization are used and appreciated, I recommend providing some guidance to new users right up front.

For this post, let’s consider two main types of Web GIS users: the viewers who can’t modify anything on a map, and the Storytellers or Creators who can edit or create features and make their own maps and applications.

For viewers

Tip: Don’t assume anything will be easy for them!

For any application where a user will only be a viewer, it’s your job to configure the solution to be as simple to use as possible and provide the answer that users are looking for, without requiring them to expend much effort or ask many questions. Test drive your applications with a few people who know nothing about GIS before launching them officially. You might get valuable feedback that only a few minor adjustments can fix, and you’ll be off to a great start.

These new users might only be viewing the information, but remember that they don’t necessarily know to click on features to get a popup window to open. Even if it’s simple to a seasoned GIS user, take the time to explain how the application works as you’re promoting it.

As much as possible, stay away from layers that can be turned on or off. It’s something we look for by default as GIS users, and they can be very tempting to include, but since the concept of layers isn’t clear to non-GIS users, they might never use or understand them. It’s best to make everything you want them to see visible right when the application opens. In terms of additional features, I recommend using only popups for additional details and a filter to drill down by area or category, for example.

In some cases, creating more applications for each specific need is the best way to go. They’d be fairly simple and quick for you as the specialist to put together, and would save you time down the road, if users can intuitively find their way around them. You can also record short videos as references and share them along with the applications’ links or with your gallery of applications.

For Storytellers and Creators

Tip: Discuss the purpose of the web app before talking about how to use it!

When you start providing new Storytellers or Creators with access to functionalities, consider offering them an introduction to what they can do with the application and the available datasets and how they can get started. Helping them understand why they’ll benefit from these new skills and how these skills will improve their daily lives is key to making these users want to use the application. Most likely they’ll require extra help and support in their learning journey after your initial introduction, so having additional resources to recommend will be important.

Don’t get me wrong: this post isn’t to scare you away from creating awesome web applications or making curated datasets available across your organization. Far from that. I just want to help you be better prepared and achieve success faster by learning from mistakes made by those who led the way before you.

Consider this: most people don’t understand that web maps are made of data. All they see is a pretty map of the world with colors and dots or lines. Since you can add a dot or a pin on most navigation systems, people think everything else on a web map is something you need to draw. From experience, talking about points, lines and polygons is a waste of time in that introductory phase. This concept is foreign for your new non-specialist users and it makes web mapping sound too complex.

I often use the example of house hunting to show how maps can bring value to a process because people are so familiar with it. Ask them if, when choosing a new house for their family, they would rather look at a spreadsheet with hundreds of properties’ addresses and prices, or look at a map on a device to see where houses are for sale and what’s nearby. Chances are they’ll pick the map right away. Once you’re done with that example and they agree with its benefits, bring up the purpose of your web application and the business needs it answers. If possible, compare it to the current way they’re doing the same search or workflow.

If your application brings value or saves them time, you should gain your users’ interest, and getting them to use it will be much easier.

Next steps

Once you’re through that first phase, I recommend creating a few short videos to demonstrate your specific environment, and even more specifically the look and feel your users will experience the most. But most users will need more. To fill that gap, try recommending the training and resources below to further reduce the support you’ll need to provide. The point of Web GIS is to give self-serve options so you can spend more time working on how to improve your organizational processes with GIS, so don’t create more work for yourself or your team.

Of course, some of your new users will be able to jump right in and figure things out as they go. Still, expect that they will be very few. My main recommendation is to suggest they complete an instructor-led course just so they get their feet wet in a structured environment, away from other day-to-day distractions.

We’ve learned from previous course participants that taking a formal course has helped most get a solid start and have clear expectations once on their own. Others have chosen not to continue their learning journey, but have as a result of their training come to understand better how spatial information can be leveraged for their business needs. They’ve started engaging with their GIS teams to further include location intelligence in their business processes. To me that’s a win either way.

The course I have in mind only takes one day out of a user’s busy life. The instructor slowly introduces the basic web mapping concepts and provides hands-on experience while answering questions along the way. ArcGIS Online is used in this case, but users can easily transfer the skills learned to an ArcGIS Enterprise portal environment.

For those who continue their journeys outside the classroom, using the self-paced e-Learning resources available on the Esri Academy and Esri Canada YouTube channel is a great option.

Self-paced resources available:

  • The Power of Maps
    This is a tutorial, but it only asks users to open links to explore how maps can bring insights and tell stories. It’s not a how-to, but it’s a great option for getting users excited about web maps.
  • GIS Basics
    This is a self-paced web course with exercises, but I recommend telling Web GIS users to skip the exercises since they won’t use ArcGIS Pro. Instead, have them complete the lessons that are presented in the videos: they focus on what geographic information is and what it’s used for.

You can also offer a quick review of the main features available in a portal with the following short videos (two minutes or less each).

Short videos available:

This last video is a little longer at eight minutes in length, but it provides step-by-step instructions on making a first web map directly in ArcGIS Online. It then guides users through the process of including it in a shareable ArcGIS StoryMaps story. There are lots of great tips in this one!

Longer video available:

It might also be a good idea to have your new users register for the 2021 Esri User Conference from July 12–15, 2021. It could be inspiring for them to attend the plenary and some sessions.

In conclusion, I wish you the best success with your Web GIS adoption. We’re here to support you, so don’t hesitate to let us know if you need a little support getting your new users started.

This post was translated to French and can be viewed here

About the Author

Carole Arseneau is a Sales Representative at Esri Canada. She advises customers from all industries on how to use GIS technology to be more efficient in their daily workflows. Carole holds a GIS certificate from Florida State College in Jacksonville and a Bachelor degree in Kinesiology from Laval University in Québec City. Being by the water has always made her feel at home and has given her inspiration to keep a positive outlook in life.

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