Google is the top web property in all major global markets. So also is the search experience in Google. “User feedback is very important to us,” says John Boyd, user experience designer at Google. Users have been at the heart of changes to Google Search since we started. Inspired and influenced by user feedback, we make subtle changes to make the look and feel of search faster, more intuitive, and more relevant,” he tells BV Mahalakshmi in a recent interaction. Excerpts:
Search is synonymous with Google. How has the Google Search experience transformed since inception till now?
Users have been at the heart of changes to Google Search since we started. Inspired and influenced by user feedback, we make subtle changes to make the look and feel of search faster, more intuitive, and more relevant.
The contrast between the way search looked in 1998 and in 2012 might be stark, but in fact we made small changes progressively over the years: whether it be on our logo, font, or the size of the search bar, you can see how Google’s homepage has become cleaner and simpler. Of course, powerful interactive features have also been added beyond the homepage to make search even more useful. For instance, you can search by voice, or by image—just drag and drop a picture into the search bar. You can also find out live sports scores by typing in the name of your favourite team, or find out answers to your questions such as “Height of the Empire State Building.”
Extensive user feedback and relentless rounds of user experience lab testing have helped us implement many of these changes. We also test new features among a small percentage of live users as they use Google normally. In the last year alone, we made over 530 changes and ran over 58,000 experiments, all to see how these changes would affect real users. Although our look has been updated through the years, our utmost principle has remained the same: to give people a fast, intuitive, and useful search experience.
What is your design philosophy for Web search and how are you working to make it more simpler and faster?
Google’s design philosophy is to combine power with simplicity. We believe search should give you what you are looking for as quickly as possible, so we gather lots of metrics and data to make improvements in speed, visual design, accuracy—all to ensure you’ll have the most intuitive and smooth experience while searching.
We make these improvements after extensive field testing with real users to make sure the changes improve the ease and usefulness of Google. In lab tests, the team carefully measures user feedback, whether it’s verbal feedback, eye tracking equipment, or even the time it takes users to find their desired result. Some of our improvements have been as visible as Google Instant, which shows search results as you type; or as subtle as a slightly bigger search box.
How do you do the testing activities? Can you cite some examples which triggered a revolutionary concept in Web search?
User feedback is very important to us. We get feedback directly from the users and Google’s dedicated user experience team puts the proposed changes through a rigorous process of testing with real life users. Here are some specific ways we carry out user experience research such as ethnographic/field studies where researchers and engineers observe people using our products in the real world, sitting side by side; or diary studies where users submit regular updates and feedback while using a product in real life; observational studies where it takes place in the labs and involve cameras, recording and eye tracking equipment, where users are given a scenario to play out while our experts watch to see how they’re reacting through a one-way mirror; and by live experiments and we turn on a new feature for a small percentage of live users and track usage on the back-end.
An example of where we implemented observed user behaviour into a product feature was Google Instant. This is the feature where we show you results instantly as you type. Our key insight from user experiments is that people type slowly, but read quickly. This means that you can scan a results page while you type. So we decided to integrate this insight into a feature in search.
What are the challenges you perceived at every level of change and the nature of experiences you gained through these challenges?
Let me explain one of our recent challenges. Many people today rely on multiple devices —laptops, smartphones, tablets—to keep in touch with their work, friends and families. However, given the disparity among devices’ different screen sizes, resolutions, hardware capabilities and so on, providing a consistent Google Search experience across devices proves remarkably harder than it looks. For instance, the way the Google Search results page looks on desktop screens— which tend to be wider than they are tall—would not look right on smartphones’ and tablets’ screens, which are taller than they are wide.
So in order to accommodate mobile devices’ screen specs, we moved the navigation tools on our mobile version of search from the left hand side to the top of the screen. In fact, this small move proved so popular that we’ve just announced that we’re rolling it out to desktop users.