Google is one of the most prominent companies in the world, especially on the Internet; everyone knows what it is and nearly everyone uses its services in some fashion. A fascinating story involving a misspelling of the word “googol” and the quintessential startup-in-a-Silicon-Valley-garage narrative, Google’s rise to the top is due to good ole’ fashioned innovation. Rather than ranking searched results by how many times search terms appeared on the page (the strategy of most search engines at the time), Google was a search engine technology that ranked search results based on the number of pages, and importance of those pages, that linked back to the original site (Page, et al., 1999).
Google has been a tech giant for a while now, but what is the secret behind their maintained success? Despite there clearly being many reasons for continued prosperity, I believe a huge factor at play here is Google’s tremendous user experience. I would dare to say it is the most powerful UX on the Internet.
Just as there are many elements that contribute to a company’s success, there are many components that assure a user’s successful experience with a system. Over time, UX and human factors professionals have compiled various principles that, when correctly incorporated into a system, lead to a strong user experience. If we inspect a few of these principles a little bit closer, I think we will see that Google has masterfully accomplished this.
Google’s algorithms may not be simple, but its homepage is. And according to 14th century super-smart-guy William Occam, simpler usually means better.
Google’s main search page is quite barren actually, and it always has been. With the exception of the occasional celebratory Google Doodles, we can nearly always bet on the classic blue, red, yellow, and green Google logo and one search bar. As far as an Internet search goes, that’s about it.
What does this mean for us users? The perceived simplicity of Google is important because not only is the site aesthetically pleasing, it allows the user to focus on the task at hand. There aren’t any useless advertisements or content-rich space to distract us from getting the job done. As hopefully most people know, the human attention span and working memory capacity is absolutely extraordinary. What many people don’t know, however, is that our working memory capacities can be degraded by even the smallest details without our conscious awareness. Amazing in some regards, but limited.
Let’s take a quick peek at the five most visited websites in the United States: Google, YouTube, Facebook, Wikipedia, and Yahoo!.
You see how much less busy Google is? The point here is not necessarily to insinuate that any of these other four sites have poor user experiences. Each of these sites offers something unique and that makes them difficult to compare with one another (with the possible exception of Google and Yahoo). With Google at #1, the rest occupy positions 2-5 on the list of most popular Internet sites in the United States; their user experiences are obviously up to scratch. These examples merely highlight the contrast of busy designs versus minimalist ones and how Google has taken advantage.
The key is distraction. Advertisements and heaps of actual content can make the user’s interaction with the site more complicated than it needs to be. While Facebook, Yahoo, Wikipedia, and YouTube all have very busy pages, Google holds onto that white space for dear life; it remains crucial for users to focus on what’s important in their website experience.
Accessibility and Adaptability
An accessible design is one that not only caters to various personas but also demonstrates strong adaptability when the unanticipated comes along. Internet users worldwide enter search terms with varying levels of literacy, education, and language; widespread usage brings with it an abundance of diversity. It’s up to Google to figure out exactly what each user needs (and find a solution) based on a few words typed into a search bar. This is a tough job, but Google does it really well.
To bring these principles to life, let’s consider an example. Suppose you’re a middle-aged male who is a budding culinary chef. A total foodie. In fact, you’re so dedicated that you managed to get your hands on an original Easy Bake Ultimate Oven “for your daughter.” The problem is, all the original instructions are missing as you bought it from a neighbor used. In order to determine how long your cookies should remain in the oven, what do you do?
You Google it, of course! An experienced Internet searcher would know that your best bet for finding the answer to any problem is through Boolean query strategies. They basically help you to speak the search engine’s language. But alas, not everyone knows Boolean search terms, so many people write their full question in the search bar (e.g., “How long does it take to bake with the Easy Bake Oven?”).
I think most of us know that search engine algorithms just don’t work like that. But here’s the plot twist, Google will undoubtedly find you the answer either way. (Note: this Easy Bake Oven example totally worked). Here we are, typing in full-on sentences to a machine and Google says “No problem, dude.”
Accessibility and Adaptability strongly contribute to how user-friendly Google is. We don’t have to think about what to type or how to type it because the algorithms basically do it for us; they are advanced enough to understand our stupid human languages. Furthermore, consistent positive interactions generate a certain level of trust that even the occasional slip-up can’t undo.
Along very similar lines, Google provides a very forgiving interface for its users. The ideas of adaptability, accessibility, and forgiving designs all go hand-in-hand in this particular example.
What I mean by ‘forgiveness’ is the fact that Google helps its users to avoid making mistakes, and if an error (usually a typo) is indeed committed, also helps to resolve the problem effectively. The primary example, of course, is Google’s “Did you mean…? feature.
I’m sure we’ve all benefitted from this:
We can see that I had typed “jacob nielsen” in the search bar. Because this is the incorrect spelling of Jakob Nielsen’s first name, Google provided a few suggestions just underneath the bar. Similarly, even though I did not click on any of Google’s suggestions and pressed “Search” anyway, Google went ahead and displayed the results for what should have been the correct spelling. The job got done despite the user’s error. Google then offers an option: “Show results for [correctly spelled query]” or “Search instead for [whatever the hell you typed in]” just in case you entered the query in correctly the first time around.
Change is an interesting concept for all of us. While some embrace change openly, others flounder in it. When it comes to user experience on the Internet, innovative changes must be deployed with extreme caution despite being categorically necessary.
Germaine Satia of Infinvision.com writes, “In user experience it could be said that familiarity breeds happiness. Or at least it breeds less head scratching. The more familiar we are with something, the less our cognitive processes have to kick in and figure out how to respond to that something” and she is absolutely right. Change creates the head scratching she refers to, and that’s because every time a website is altered in some way, we have to figure out how to use it all over again.
Google’s search engine hasn’t changed a bit. It’s familiar to all of us. While every other website in the world must consistently update in order to stay fresh and keep users interested, no one is going to stop using Google’s search anytime soon.
Familiarity is actually an incredibly powerful principle when it comes to user experience, when deployed in the right spots. Humans are creatures of habit; the fact that we are comfortable with a system already is an impetus to continue usage. What’s particularly interesting here is that Google has been around for long enough that it has created the familiar interface we know so well. Typically, websites have to adopt the accepted patterns and icons that enable users to know what to do next. What better way to facilitate users’ “getting it” than using elements they already “get”? Lucky for Google, it doesn’t have to do that because they sort of did it 15 years ago.
We know Google. You type your query into the search bar and click the “Google Search” button. Unless you’re one of those preposterous free spirits who uses “I’m Feeling Lucky,” that’s about it. That familiarity improves the user’s experience.
Google is reliable. It just works, every time and all the time. Google’s users trust the service.
The fact that Google is never down and churns out helpful query results on a consistent basis is something that many people take for granted. In reality, the user experience of a website or an app is critically affected by glitches or poor quality performance. Like, it’s really bad if your product just doesn’t work. Why would a user stay when the next guy in line has a product that does work?
Google, though? Tried, tested, and trusty Google never lets us down! It is reliable and that is a way bigger contributor to its user experience than people realize.
Perhaps a cause of overwhelming success in the tech industry, Google provides the most powerful user experience on the Internet. We can quickly analyze which usability principles are most prominently creating a strong experience for the user: Independent of the user’s demographics, Google offers familiarity and reliability in a web environment that is constantly changing. Equally as important, Google successfully helps users find solutions to the problems and questions they pose, developing a strong sense of trust that further improves the User Experience. From simple to familiar, accessible to adaptable, Google does it all.
Nielsen, J., & Molich, R. (1990). Heuristic evaluation of user interfaces. Proc. ACM CHI’90 Conf. (Seattle, WA, April 1-5), 249-256.
Page, L., Brin, S., Motwani, R., & Winograd, T. (1999). The PageRank citation ranking: Bringing order to the web. Stanford InfoLab.