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In the traditional "pin" approach to maps, the pin essentially "points" to the actual latitude/longitude. Alternatively, you could have a symmetric (e.g. circular) icon that is essentially centred on the latitude/longitude. Have there been any usability studies or guides for when to use which type?

Example map pin:

pin

Example symmetric marker:

marker

My question is whether to have markers "point" to their exact location (i.e. using a "pin"), or whether to centre them on top of that exact location (e.g. using a circular icon). In neither case am I referring to clustering, as I will not be clustering markers.

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    Don't know any studies but I'd assume use the first one when you need to be more precise at a glance. The red eyeball(?) on the bottom image is covering 4-5 intersections, I can try to guess which one is under the center but will probably be wrong. – DasBeasto Feb 25 '16 at 13:06
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    The advantage of the "pinpoint" version is that you can still see the streets around the area of interest. In the second image they are covered by the marker. This is important if you are showing a location for people to visit, less so if you are showing information (e.g. cholera outbreaks) or general location. – James Fryer Feb 25 '16 at 13:53
  • You might also find an answer here: How can I represent multiple pins at the same location on a map? – jazZRo Feb 25 '16 at 15:40
  • @JamesFryer I would mark this as an answer if you added it as so. i.e. for a case where you need to show people the "exact" location, using a pin would allow them to determine it perhaps 1-3 zoom levels earlier than if the marker is centred. So I think "use pins if you need to show exact locations, use centered markers if determining exact location is not as important and appearance is more important". Pins certainly seem to look worse to me at least. – rgareth Feb 26 '16 at 7:30
  • Thanks too, @DasBeasto - "more precise at a glance" also sums it up pretty well. – rgareth Feb 26 '16 at 7:30
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Most of the digital design we see today is a replica of real life objects. We started with skeuomorphic design and slowly transit to simpler flat design to cut away the design bloats. Before the digital drop pin, people were using real pins to mark location on the map.

enter image description here

There is no official statistics (not that I know of) on which location marker fare better than the other. Which marker type to use is entirely up to your design and implementation. That being said, people are more familiar with traditional pin as location markers for the reason I describe above. Choose this if you want a more conservative design approach.

  • +1. If you are trying to find a restaurant or something, you need to know exactly which street it is in. The fact that it is somewhere in the vicinity is very little use. – Yvonne Aburrow Feb 25 '16 at 14:46
  • I've upvoted this but not marked it as an answer because "Which marker type to use is entirely up to your design and implementation" doesn't really get anyone closer to an answer. – rgareth Feb 26 '16 at 7:25
  • Good points though regarding skeumorphic origins and what people are used to, but that doesn't mean it's always going to be the best UX. – rgareth Feb 26 '16 at 7:26
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The answer to your question depends on the purpose of your map. Use symbols that fit your need and data.

For example, use

  • Pin (= marker symbol, or short marker http://www.designingmapinterfaces.com/patterns/marker/) when highlighting a single (you are here) or limited amount (route from - to) of locations
  • Single symbol to draw many features in a layer with a common symbol like a blue dot or circle
  • Unique values symbol to apply a different symbol to each category of features within the layer based on one or more fields (e.g. this location is a hospital vs fire station vs school etc.)
  • Other variations are based on qualitative differences that can be shown by using a range of colors or quantitative values as shown through a series of unclassed, proportionally sized symbols

Clustering comes into play when you run into the problem of having too many points on the map and/or it's really not necessary to show them all but only hint to the number. This case is very common on smaller scales, e.g. 100k policies in NY and I don't want to show 100,000 points, right?

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