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Google Search and OXO Grip

Posted on | April 7, 2010 | No Comments

Much of the discussion on the CHI-KIDS LinkedIn group has been about how kids search for things on the web.  Within the group, rumors have surfaced that there is a special lab at Google that is working on developing better ways to search.  I designed multiple web and mobile educational apps for children and have some familiarity with this user group, so that got me intrigued, and I did some of my own digging.

A NYT article from December 2009 summarizes Google’s latest findings:

– Pre-teen kids are not well-versed with multi-step keyword searches.  Given a task to find out, say, when Lincoln was born, they would often try to type in the entire question into the search box
– Related searches seem to resonate with kids very well (makes perfect sense since it provides a degree of interactive guidance to the kids who have harder time resolving a situation when they are stuck)
– Visual search (both images and videos) is much more effective and intuitive for kids.  Interestingly, since “Bing used more imagery than other search engines, it attracted more children. Microsoft says Bing’s audience of 2- to 17-year-olds has grown 76 percent since May”.
– Kids are likely to benefit greatly from good voice-enabled search solutions

While the results of these studies are certainly useful, they are not really revolutionary by themselves – at least for anyone who worked on apps for kids (or simply has kids). It makes sense that kids are looking for visually informative, intuitive ways to communicate with search engines in a human way.

What I thought was more interesting is that Google is seemingly not working on any specialized solution for kids. Instead, Google recognized that what kids want is, to some extent, what everyone wants.  Kids naturally follow the most intuitive, straightforward and “human” interaction patterns, such as asking a question when they need information.  Of course, then we grow up and learn all those synthetic keyword search strategies and other tricks – in other words, we give up our natural way of doing things in order to communicate with computers.  But once technology catches up, we are happy to go back to our natural ways for a superior user experience, given such option. Google smartly recognized that creating a search experience that would work for kids would also work for adults.

Roll the tape back to the late 80s.  The founder of a small housewares company observed that elderly people with diminished dexterity due to arthritis and other progressive issues had troubles gripping narrow sleek handles of kitchen utensils.  Sam Farber developed his line of OXO Grip kitchenwares with thick, non-slip, rubbery handles specifically for the aging segment of the market, but as soon as the product went to market, it became a hit with everyone – not just the elderly!  Everyone recognized a superior, more usable product – even people that could manage the thin handles with no pain preferred the comfortable, secure feel of a thick, rubbery (yet stylish) one.

These are just 2 examples from 2 very different industries.  Often people that are  in charge of designing products (or interfaces) have learned the rules of the game way too well for their own good.  It’s hard to get out of that mental shell and look for really intuitive, natural patterns.  Looking to the ‘bookend’ user groups, such as children, or elderly people, or perhaps another user group that falls out of the mainstream for clues can be quite enlightening.  Designing for marginal groups may often result in a better solution for all.

For now, we do know that Google has already extended the length of its search field which can accommodate longer queries and questions.  What’s next?

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