In July, I saw Iowa State’s Dr. Sarah Nusser give a presentation about spatial ability among survey field representatives and how different people interact with various geospatial technologies. This talk introduced an area of research quite new to me, and it reminded me how important it is to know your audience before designing products for them. It also touched on directly augmenting our sensory perception — more about that below.
When you hire people to collect survey data in the field (verify addresses, conduct interviews, assess land cover type, etc.), you hope they’ll be able to find their way to the sites where you’re sending them. But new hires might come in with various levels of skill or experience, as well as different mental models for maps and geography. Dr. Nusser’s work [here's a representative article] frames this as “spatial ability” and, practically speaking, treats it as innate: rather than training adults to improve their spatial ability, she focuses on technology and interfaces that help them work better with the mental model they already have. (I can’t believe that spatial ability really is innate and static… but it’s probably cheaper to design a few user-targeted interfaces once than to train new hires indefinitely.)
How do you tell if someone has high or low spatial ability (high SA vs low SA)? One approach is the Paper Folding Test and related tests produced by the Educational Testing Service.