The new Google Maps is based off a true 3-D engine, instead of trying to fake it, as before.

Google Maps now shows a much more personalized experience when you're logged in than when you're logged off.

Google moved the layover when you click on a pin so that it no longer obscures the map.

A comparison between the old Maps and the new Maps shows a much cleaner look, based off vector graphics, not tiles.

Napkin sketch maps, from Google designers

The redesign of Pegman to make the mascot more friendly, legible at small sizes, and in-tune with the new Maps design.

The pin bounce animation adds character and responsiveness to the map, and makes the app feel faster by giving people something to look at as the new map tiles load.

Before, search results were just layered crudely on top of the map with letters to cross-reference. Now they are labeled as an integral part of the map.

A collection of whiteboard sketches from early meetings.

Behind Google Maps' Intuitive New Design

How do you redesign the world's most popular mapping service with the devices of the future in mind? You throw everything out and start from scratch.

First launched in 2005, Google Maps has helped hundreds of millions of people plot billions of trips worldwide. It's one of the most indispensable Internet services available: more than 54% of all smartphone owners in the world use it at least once a month.

So how do you redesign Maps for the next decade, those next billion trips? You throw everything out and redesign it from the ground up with the future in mind—and not just the future of smartphones and tablets, but also the future of Google Glass, the iWatch, and self-driving cars.

The new Google Maps sees a redesign of Pegman, the Street View mascot. His animations now show him dangling his limbs when you "drive" around.

Currently rolling out to all users internationally, Google's new Maps design is a radical overhaul of the service that most of us have grown familiar with over the years. Featuring a minimalist UI based off of Chrome, it's faster, more responsive, more personalized, and more integrated with related Maps services like Google Earth than ever before.

"The old Maps was a lot like a Christmas tree," says Jonah Jones, lead designer for Google Maps. "We kept on adding these beautiful new ornaments, but over the years, the ornaments started weighing the tree down, and it became hard to find the one you were looking for." The accumulated cruft of almost a decade of development had resulted in a design that was cluttered and obtuse, with countless Google services layered over one another. This made features hard to discover, unless you already knew they were there.

For the update, Google wanted to take a step back and redesign Google Maps from scratch to accommodate the feature set it had built up over the years. Not only did it need to seamlessly integrate Google's many mapping services such as Google Earth and Street Views, but it also needed to provide as future-proof of a base as possible to build out Maps for the next decade.

Interacting With The Content, Not The Dropdowns

One thing that liberated the Google Maps design team, Jones says, is the fact that people's expectations of user interfaces are changing. In an age of touch-screen devices and minimal UIs, people are used to more directly interacting with content, instead of menus and dropdowns. For the redesign, Jones and his team wanted to do for Maps what Chrome had done for browsers: strip away all the buttons and controls, and have users interacting with maps directly.

The old Google Maps obscured the map when trying to show you information about the pin. In the new design, this information appears to the side.

"During our design process, we were super aggressive," says Jones. "We would ask ourselves, 'What would we design if we could only keep 20% of Maps' features? In the end, though, there were incredibly few features that ended up being dropped. They're just not all screaming for attention anymore."

The cardinal design principle of the new Maps design is to contextualize the location it is showing a user at any time, and only present the user further options for interacting with a location as appropriate. For example, if you are browsing a map, and click or tap a nearby subway station, Google Maps will present you with a card telling you what trains and buses service the station, and when they will be arriving. Simultaneously, Maps adds an overlay so you can see the train and bus routes.

The same principle governs interacting with any other location. Click on a restaurant, or search for it, and a card will pop up with its address, hours, website, phone number, and reviews. From there, you can save it to a list of your Google Maps favorites, making it easier to navigate to in the future, or call up directions with just a tap. A Street View or Google Earth view of that location is just a button click away.

A Maps For Many Platforms

The new Google Maps is not just a new interface, though. There are some significant technological changes happening behind the scenes to bring Google Maps into 2014. It's faster, it's 3-D, and it is designed from the ground up to handle any device you can throw at it.

The old Google Maps displayed map information as a series of pre-rendered tiles, fit together so as to best represent the location you were searching for. If you have ever played a game of Carcassonne, you've got the idea. The problem with tiles, though, is that since they are pre-rendered, they need to be downloaded every time you refresh a map. This can result in slower download times, especially in mobile devices. For the redesign, Google switched to vector-based maps. Instead of downloading a series of pre-rendered images for each map, Google's servers pass along a stream of data to the new Maps that describes what a location should look like using points, lines, curves, and other geometric objects.

The evolution of Google Maps, from tiles to vectors.

Not only is the vector approach faster, but it is also truly 3-D (albeit, most of the time, viewed from a two-dimensional perspective). This allows Google to do things it could never do before, like incorporate Google Earth's 3-D view into Maps directly, without loading up an entirely separate app. This shift to true 3-D, though, did have one casualty: a fake shadow on the Google Maps pin.

"In the past, the perspective was a bit weird, because while you were always viewing the map from above, a prominent branding element—which you can still see even on the official app icons—was a fake shadow on the pin, set at a 45-degree angle," Jones says. "In the new Maps, that 45-degree shadow is discordant: because everything is now rendered in 3-D, we can now have real shadows on all the buildings. So the fake shadow had to go. You wouldn't believe how many discussions we had, just about dropping the shadow from the pin."

Finally, the new Google Maps was designed from the ground up to work well on everything, from smartphones to tablets to PCs. In 2014, a responsive, scalable design that works everywhere might seem like a matter of course for a company like Google, but Jones and his team needed to also design the new Maps while keeping in mind the devices of the future. Jones and his team have worked with the engineers behind Google Glass to lay the groundwork for Maps on the company's wearable headset; the interface of Google Maps has been designed so that it could, in theory, scale down to be visible on a watch face.

"Eventually, Google Maps might have to run on Glass, or even on a smartwatch. It will have to integrate new services and features, too," says Jones. "The whole point of this redesign is to make the first baby steps towards a new future, half of which we've already imagined, and the other half of which we haven't even conceived of yet."

The new Google Maps should finish its rollout to users this month. If you don't see it yet, check back.

Add New Comment

24 Comments

  • maps

    The new system sucks. Remember how you used to be able to display a map and street view at the same time by splitting the screen? Now all you get is a tiny map in the corner of street view that is too small to show you where you are in context because you can't zoom it.

    Yes, it shows you exactly which half of the street block you're viewing. It doesn't show you the surrounding area so you can see how close you are to other things. Heaven help you if you dropped the peg guy more than a half block from your intended location because you'll never be able to find it without exiting street view via its lurching transition.

    What's with the UX designers of the world becoming enamored with the full-screen modality? Some things require context, and not everything is a tiny touchscreen phone.

  • arlingtonhynes

    Yeah, it's really intuitive to cover 1/6 of the window with flashing boxes full of information the user didn't ask for. This is a classic example of design driven entirely by what the designer wants, with no attention paid to what the user wants. Lotus Jazz comes to mind as a similar debacle.

    I've spent a fair amount of time in software design meetings with fools who lack empathy with the user, and one phrase you always hear is some variation on "just make the user do such-and-such" or "the user will just have to deal with it". That guy is the problem: The guy who thinks the user is a galley slave who exists for the developers' benefit. That guy is where unusable software comes from. Fire him. Fire him now. Fire him without references.

  • Alan K Schwarz

    On a laptop , the "Get Directions " box is HUGE,ugly and cant be minimized completely. Like You Tube ,Google pesters you to sign in ,join +plus, NAG NAG NAG I just wanna see a map in peace. Im ready to dig out my Thomas guide

  • If it's so intuitive, why is it driving me crazy? Why am I having to search for instructions on how to use it? I increasingly find myself frustrated and popping over to bing for quick map location searches now.

  • Case Hensler

    The new design is awful!! I hate how the upper left corner keeps flashing/dropping down different locations and street names. Makes me go crazy!! I will no longer use google maps.

  • The new Google maps has led me to discover Bing maps. I had never even tried Bing maps before. But since I could NOT get directions from point A to point B in google, I had to go elsewhere.

  • Redesigned, yes, intuitive, not so much. Not to mention the completely broken zoom on Macs. I held out as long as I could with the old version, which I found snappier, easier to use and, well, actually usable. In a word, disappointing.

  • Cheryl Anderson

    New Maps: I can't see how you could have made the maps so bad. I have to quite using google maps because it makes my blood pressure run sky high. They are not intuitive they are impossibel to get want you require. Good by google maps: hello mapquest.

  • first rule of good UX should be don't fix what isn't broken. It's fine redesigning something but throwing away something tried and tested that works for something untested is just sheer stupidity.

  • Yep, you dont have to fix something that is not broken, but it doesn't mean that you can't try and improve it. Any UI, no matter how good it is gets dated. This digital world is just insanely dynamic, there is always new ways to interact with devices and you cant ignore this. And they did test, a lot. I believe the test rolled for more than 1 year as I was one of the thousands or millions of users that signed for testing it out...

  • I agree with you about "don't fix what isn't broken". But do you really think a company like Google doesn't test before they release something? Design changes in Google are million $ decisions.

  • I hear loud and clear the voice of the designers in this article and how pleased with themselves they are on this homework assignment to start from scratch. Nowhere does it mention how they listened to the voice of their customers or users of their product on their perspective on what might improve their experience. The "incredibly few features" that seem to have been dropped have been called out on google discussion boards for nearly a year (send to car, search nearby referencing a fixed "pinned" point) and Google still decided to roll this out to everyone. It could be I'm mistaken or perceiving myself as a "customer" of this free product, but I paid for my android phone and if the google experience continues to get less useful as it is here with this Google Maps roll out it will certainly weigh in for my next purchase.

  • to be fair the mobile app is pretty good. It has been around for a long time now and it's much better than the previous version. Unlike the desktop version, which is a total mess.

  • I'm afraid I have to agree with the other comments here -- I'm a heavy user of Google maps and I switched to the new maps as soon as they released the beta (so I've been using them a while), and I still find myself yearning for the simplicity of the old maps. The whole zoom in/zoom out frankly gets tiresome and seems to significantly slow down performance. "Chasing" the navigation arrows in Street View is annoying, and frankly it doesn't seem like they thought through the user experience in Street View very well at all (for example, if you search for a specific place and want to see it in Street view, when you drag peg man over to the spot the pointer totally disappears, so you don't know where to place peg man!). My main objection, though, is just how slow and cumbersome everything is now.

  • There are still some bugs to work out. I think in the effort to be more user-friendly, I lost the ability to do more customization/advanced settings as far as routing, options & times, etc. Simplicity is only better if it works! Function>form.

  • I almost forgot... If you have a Mac and use Apple's Magic Mouse, Google's Maps are a zoom-in, zoom-out filled disaster, just like Photoshop and Illustrator.

  • Their new maps are a step backwards in terms of intuitive design. With the now hidden (or possibly eliminated) options that used to be available, I now find myself relying on Apple's Maps instead... and I'm finding Apple's Maps to be more accurate now.