How Google’s Designers Are Quietly Overhauling Search

Google Search’s designers are treating what was once just an ugly list of links like a software application.

On the same day that Larry Page became Google’s CEO for the second time, he ordered a redesign of all its products. Which came as a surprise to Jon Wiley, now the lead designer for Google Search.


“We were let out of our cage,” he explained on stage at UX Week last year. His voice and expression briefly snapped into an imitation of someone who has just been blinded. “We were like, Ah, the light!” he joked, before putting his presentation voice back on and continuing: “As designers at Google, we had struggled with this for years. It wasn’t like all the designers at Google were like, Ah, yeah, it looks gorgeous.”

Google’s product teams are built to be nimble and quick, but creating a unified design vision requires a top-down push. Page provided that push. And while the design of Google Search in 2000 looked almost the same as it did in 2010, the service–along with Maps, Gmail, and Calendar–got the biggest redesign of its history in 2011.

After that, Search kept evolving. New “knowledge graph” results popped up as photos and Wikipedia-like factoids to the right of results. Answers weren’t always presented as links. Putting a math problem in the search box, for instance, now returns a calculator. The search-options bar has migrated from its traditional post on the left-hand side of the search-results page to the top. Your average user may not have noticed anything different, but in the context of Google Search’s history, this is radical stuff.

Google’s recently uncaged designers are looking at search differently.

“When I think of design and creating great user experiences, I generally try to think of it in terms of three things: usability, utility, and desirability,” Wiley says. “And I think for a long time Google has been very good at the utility and the usability. Maybe we paid a little bit less attention to the desirability side of that. Now, instead of being a basic web page, as it was for many years, there’s a need for it to become more of a software application. That leads it down a road of having to have a richer design.”

In other words, he adds later: “It’s not as simple as it used to be.”


Mobile Promotes Desirability In Search Design

Interacting with Google Search on mobile devices is different than doing so at your desk, and these new contexts for Search have helped drive its transition from “these are some results” to more of a software application.

“It’s not only a new form factor in terms of how things are displayed, but it also adds a new level of engagement” Wiley tells Fast Company. “It’s something you can touch, and you can move things around and they respond in kind. That creates a whole new level of this need for desirability. . . . It has to have both momentum and physics that we particularly associate with physical objects. This puts us down an entirely new path in terms of the kind of design thinking we have in terms of what does it look like, how does it feel, does it work right. We start talking about very visual design, like the shadows and the gradients and the light sources and how all of these things create an aesthetic for the product.”

Mobile also removes some inherent constraints of designing a 15-year-old product that more than a billion people use. There’s more room for experimentation. Take Google Now, a collaboration between the Search and Android product teams. It delivers implicit search results such as activity summaries, sports updates, and transit schedules on richly designed cards rather than through Google’s traditional list of links.

Since every team at Google is now also a mobile team–with the same engineers working on a single product across all platforms–mobile innovation drives changes on desktop as well. That’s why the navigation bar on desktop search now spans across the top of results, as it does on Google’s apps, instead of sitting at the left-hand side of the page as it did for more than a decade. And if you search for a flight, a math problem, or a definition, you’ll see a rich result card, which was first released on mobile and is not unlike those that populate Google Now.

At Google, Desirability Is Informed By Data

Data isn’t any less important to Google Search, the application, than it was to Google Search, the list of links. The company that once tested 41 shades of blue to determine the color of its hyperlinks is still proud of its data-driven design.

Before Google’s 2011 product redesign, groups of testers scored mock-ups on 30 different attributes such as “modern,” “clean,” and “simple.” Similarly, Wiley’s team frequently gathers at a usability lab on Google’s campus to watch groups react to the design solutions they’ve created. Potential changes are constantly tested on fractions of Google’s immense userbase. At any one time, Wiley says Google may be running hundreds of A/B tests on just search. It counts the slimmest user time savings as improvements.


Google can’t run an infinite number of experiments. It has to start with design thinking in order to frame what to run an experiment on. But data most often determines whether those ideas meet the public. “We want to make sure to hire people who understand that simplicity and aesthetics and beauty are there in service to make a better product for the user,” Wiley says.

But what if users dislike something merely because it’s new? If the ultimately superior design is not instantly the faster? If something truly innovative has a bit of a learning curve?

“It turns out that is something we can measure,” Wiley says.

[Image: Web via Shutterstock]


About the author

Sarah Kessler is a senior writer at Fast Company, where she writes about the on-demand/gig/sharing "economies" and the future of work.