Google seems to have developed almost an almost preternatural ability to divine what users are really looking for when they enter a search term. Its engine often returns useful results for even the most egregiously misspelled queries. But Google’s user experience team hopes to give search an additional layer of intelligence—the power to grow with users over time, returning different results depending on whether users are just beginning to investigate a subject or have become old hands.
At Google, any change to search—which is probably one of the most financially lucrative products of all time—is done with caution. “As a team, we say all the time, ‘Don’t break search,’ ” says Jon Wiley, lead designer for the user experience team.
Google’s user experience team has two branches: designers and researchers. The design group builds the visual experience, and the researchers test it to see if it works, says Dan Russell, lead researcher for the team. Designers come up with possible changes, which the researchers test by inserting them into live search results for selected groups of everyday users and gathering data about their responses.
For example, Wiley is a new father, and over time, he’s performed a progressive set of searches related to parenthood. He envisions a system that could eventually respond intelligently to that progression, understanding that the questions he has about diapers right after the baby comes home from the hospital are probably different from those he will have in six months.
Wiley also imagines the search engine tracking and supporting research into chronic medical conditions, travel plans, or even years of study about a favored hobby, adapting as the user goes.
Of course, that’s a moon-shot vision. The team will gather information and make small changes toward that goal over a long period of time. Both designers and researchers do extensive field studies and interviews with users, standing over users’ shoulders to observe how they approach search tasks. In the past year, Google ran more than 20,000 experiments and made more than 500 adjustments to search.
Wiley says that adjusting users’ approach to long-term search tasks is a particularly delicate process. “How do you give help at the right moment and in the right way?” he asks. There are dangers to distracting or confusing users, or to pulling them into an experience that feels unfamiliar.