Google's Search Anthropologists

A Techwise Conversation with Jon Wiley, a happiness researcher at Google

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Steven Cherry:

Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations.”

Happiness is an elusive quality, but surely the existence of search engines in general—and Google in particular—have led to an overall increase in human happiness. The name of that actor whose face is so familiar, the song on the tip of your tongue, the new gizmo you heard about at lunch last week—what was it again?

Phone numbers, birthday gifts, restaurant reviews, baby names—so many of life’s little questions are resolved these days by those six multicolored letters on a vast expanse of white background. And yet, each day, Google is hard at work increasing the quantity of happiness in the universe by making the search experience easier and better. To that end, it employs a team of researchers devoted to what it calls the anthropology of search.

My guest today, Jon Wiley, is the lead designer on the user experience team for Google Search. He’s been an interaction designer, developer, copywriter, information architect, sys admin, visual designer, standards evangelist, accessibility consultant, and in his varied career, he’s even done tech support and improv comedy, two tasks that I for one wish were more closely aligned in the rest of the world. He joins us by phone from Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California. Jon, welcome to the podcast.

Jon Wiley: Thank you, Steven.

Steven Cherry: Jane Goodall had to go to Africa to study primates; you get to sit behind a computer in an air-conditioned office and eat lunch in Google’s legendary cafeteria. Tell us how you study Homo sapiens in the wild, foraging for information.

Jon Wiley: Well, we have a number of ways in which we listen to our users at Google. And some of these ways we do actually bring our users here into our research labs at Google. And for those types of tasks, generally, is—we bring in users, and we want them to experience the product. We can watch them use the product and experience a given feature that we’re trying to improve within Search and see if we’re actually solving the problem that we’re intending to solve. Other ways that we actually study our users is through running experiments on Google Search as well.

Steven Cherry: So what are some of the more striking things you see people doing?

Jon Wiley: You know, what’s funny is people—they don’t always have a great understanding of, like, what they should type in as a query. So like query formulation is actually something that we spend a lot of time trying to get right. So for instance, one of the tools we do on Google Search is as you’re typing your query, we’ll give you a set of predictions, which hopefully will get you closer to what it is you’re asking for. In one of our user studies several years ago, this user was talking to our researcher and was saying that he was very interested in purchasing a new television set, and he started talking at length about it. He was saying, well, there’s plasma versus LCD, and what size, and all these different types of variables. And the researcher said, well, why don’t you try to find what you’re looking for on Google. And the participant turned to the computer and typed “television” into the box. And at that point he had this whole rich sort of conversation that was happening, but the conversation with Google was boiled down to one word. And so we look at this and we try to say, well, you know, how can we help the user get to either a better query formulation, gather more information to figure out what it is that they’re trying to look for? Or alternatively, if you do a search for something like television on Google, you’ll find a variety of things—the history of television, purchasing televisions, or television shows, and whatnot. And so trying to understand our users and trying to understand what they’re telling us so we can give them the best results—that’s something that we really strive to do.

Steven Cherry: So what are some of the ways in which your group has changed the Google experience?

Jon Wiley: So I think one of the big changes that has happened in the last few years is the introduction of what we call universal results. And so in the early days of search you would type in your query, and you’d get just basically a set of Web pages, but there were different what we call the “search verticals,” right? So you might also have wanted to go see perhaps news articles, or perhaps images or videos, but you had to make a choice to do that. And one of the technologies that we introduced was the ability to sort of read and understand. It’s getting back to understanding that query, so that if you type in “puppies,” well, you probably want pictures of puppies. So we’ve introduced that feature into the search results directly so you can actually switch to seeing photos of puppies right there in the search results without necessarily having to make a choice ahead of time to do that.

Steven Cherry: So if I understand you, it used to be the case that if I wanted an image I had to pick images first and then search. And now I can just search on my term and then one of my choices is images. And there’s also some navigation now on the left that I guess allows me to narrow things down to specifically images or videos or whatever.

Jon Wiley: Absolutely. We introduced this left panel navigation and tools as well, last year in 2010. And part of it is these various verticals, these modes that you can click into if you so choose, like news results or videos or images. An additional set of tools there is to refine your results. So perhaps you’re doing a search and you’re looking for the latest information; you can click on a tool that allows you to refine by time. So you can, say, get these results from within the last few days, or within the last week or month if you’re trying to get results that were created on the Web within that period of time.

Steven Cherry: And another recent introduction is the black bar and the tabs at the top with different Google services.

Jon Wiley: Yeah. So we’ve actually had the ability to navigate between these Google services for a while. We’ve done a recent visual design change; it’s actually a pretty big visual design change across all Google products, which we started launching just towards the tail end of June and through July. And we’ve actually made several changes—we’re actually launching a number of subtle visual design changes today, in fact, to the search experience. And this is all part of actually a Google-wide redesign that we’ve undertaken this summer across Gmail, Calendar, Documents, Search, Maps, trying to bring a better aesthetic, because this is actually, again, going back to listening to our users and paying attention to what they’re saying and how they’re reacting to Google products. We recognize—as you mention at the top of the podcast—people are using Google every day; they’re spending a lot of time with the product and doing searches. So you have a tool that you use all the time; you want it to be a well-designed tool, you want it to look good, you want it to be a tool that you feel comfortable with. And so we’ve actually introduced these visual design changes across Google to bring uniformity, bring more focus, and make it more of an effortless experience for our users.

Steven Cherry: A few months ago we had Joseph Smarr from the Google+ team on the show, and he described a kind of ebb and flow within Google where product groups go out and do their own thing, developing their product, then periodically get reined in in a centralized way. And so that, I guess, gets back to this unified experience and a unified design.

Jon Wiley: Yeah. So I think one of the strengths at Google is we typically take a bottoms up approach to developing features. You know, each of the teams is sort of on the ground with their users, trying to really understand the types of problems their users have and identify innovative solutions to those problems. Each team has a lot of freedom to pursue these things so they can move quickly, move fast and get these solutions into the hands of our users. But our users are also using all of these different products, these Google products across the board, and so for something like search even—I was mentioning about images versus news or video, these are large, you know, from the Google side, these are large endeavors; these are very large software products, but to the end user going about their daily business and trying to find the information they need, ideally it’s a seamless experience; to our users, it’s just search. So we spend a fair amount of time again trying to really understand our users and trying to find the right features for them. But at the end of the day we have to reconcile that and make sure it’s an easy experience for them. So trying to put as much simplicity on the face of these powerful technologies is something we work towards.

Steven Cherry: It’s funny…you mention simplicity. I had occasion to look at the original Google home page back in the 1990s. And Google’s famous for having an uncluttered home page, but the current one is actually a lot less cluttered than the original one.

Jon Wiley: Yeah. I think a part of this stems from us trying to always find what we do best and what we’re doing very well and really turn that up a notch. And we definitely made a concerted effort to keep the home page experience clean and simple, and it has simplified over the years. In fact, I’m trying to make it even more simple.

Steven Cherry: The “I’m feeling lucky” button is still there. Do people still use that?

Jon Wiley: So people still use that, and it’s definitely still an important part of sort of the culture and lore of Google. We introduced Google Instant at the end of last year, and the “I’m feeling lucky” button doesn’t have quite the same functionality it did previously. We actually also still have the “I’m feeling lucky” as a function off of the search results. If you’re typing and you see some of those predictions and you mouse over one of the predictions or you arrow down to the predictions, you can actually click on “I’m feeling lucky” as well, and it’ll take you to the first result for that query, which is actually the original function of “I’m feeling lucky.” But we also have really ramped up our Google doodles as well on the home page, just as our way of adding a little more fun and a little bit of irreverence and a little bit of quirkiness to our home page.

Steven Cherry: The other day from the day that we’re recording this was the Freddie Mercury—and I think that was the most elaborate one I’ve ever seen.

Jon Wiley: Well, you know, I think it’s right up there with—my favorite is the PacMan doodle, which was a playable version of PacMan—which you can still get to, by the way: it’s But, yeah, it’s hard to beat an 8-bit Freddie Mercury riding a tiger through the sky.

Steven Cherry: Yeah, it was an animated music video.

Jon Wiley: Yeah, exactly, and I love being able to work at a company that can really sort of play with its logo that way and sort of be bold in that fashion and have that kind of experience right on their home page.

Steven Cherry: Speaking of being playful, I mentioned at the top your varied background. In fact, it seems that anthropology is one of the few ways in which you haven’t made a living. How did you go from stand-up comedy at nightclubs to usability at Google?

Jon Wiley: Well, so I got a degree in theater, and I had been performing since I was a kid. But I was also interested in computers and technology, and I sort of ping-ponged between these worlds for a while. and I actually created one of the world’s first improv comedy websites back in 1995, back when the Web was still this nascent design minefield, really. And at the time for my performances with my theater company, we needed a cheap form of advertising, and we were targeting college students at the time, and I said, well, I know how to make these web pages for this newfangled World Wide Web thing. And then eventually I never received the standard rich and famous contract, and I thought, well, you know, designing websites is probably better than waiting tables. So I pursued that avenue as a career choice, and eventually I ended up as the lead designer at Google.

Steven Cherry: I don’t suppose you have any jokes for us here today, like, a rabbi, a priest and a minister install the latest Chrome update…

Jon Wiley: [laughs] Well, you know, my talent really lies in ensemble comedy, so I sort of have to have a whole group of people doing the improv bits, taking suggestions from the audience and whatnot…

Steven Cherry: Well, fair enough. Jon, sometimes I think Tim Berners-Lee gets only half the credit for making the World Wide Web we’ve come to know and love, and Brin and Page deserve the other half. But they can’t do it alone; they need an ensemble. I guess that’s where everybody else eating at the Google cafeteria comes in. Thanks for joining us today.

Jon Wiley: Thank you so much, Steven. It’s been a pleasure.

Steven Cherry: We’ve been speaking with Jon Wiley, a lead designer at Google Search, about how Google studies user behavior to improve the search experience. For IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations,” I’m Steven Cherry.

This interview was recorded 7 September 2011.
Audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli

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