In this series of articles, we look at and explore various digital experiences, analyzing them step by step to identify relevant heuristics and concepts rooted in psychology. This series will open with Google Search, a popular service that helps countless people find information on the vast expanses of the Internet every day. Before moving on to search results, we’ll start with the landing page and the search process. Let’s get started!
In its 21+ years of existence, Google’s landing page has changed only slightly. The purpose of this page has remained unchanged to provide people with a quick and easy way to find information on the Internet. In fact, it was implemented so effectively that the actual search on the Internet became synonymous with the name of the company. A major factor in Google’s search success is its simplicity. The page consists of almost one search box, which is located approximately in its center and by default is always focused – ready to receive the search keyword. After you start typing, a list of suggested keywords will appear below the input box based on what you have already typed. This list of predicted keywords keeps updating as you type, and is designed to show the keyword you are likely to type before you finish typing, thus saving you time (and mental energy) …
A key psychological heuristic used on the Google Search landing page is Hick’s Law, which states that the time it takes to make a decision increases with the number and complexity of the choices… Google minimizes the number of decisions required to enter a keyword by eliminating any additional content that might distract from your keyword input or require additional decisions. The design serves that sole purpose of keeping the page focused on the search process by placing the search box prominently, automatically focusing the default search input, and removing advanced search options. Once again, Hick’s Law is used when you start typing and predictable keywords appear, eliminating the need to write the entire word (assuming a match is found). Google’s goal is to initiate query-based searches as quickly as possible, and it follows that goal, removing any obstacles that might lead to additional decisions.
The next step is the search results page, which displays the data found based on your query. The original search keyword appears at the top of the page, along with additional options to filter the results. The results are presented in a list, and each is presented as prominent pieces of content, separated by large intervals, so one result is easy to distinguish from another. If necessary, the search term definition will also appear at the top of the results on this page as a sidebar card that provides additional information about the term (usually from Wikipedia).
Hick’s Law also carries over from the previous page to the search results page. This is where you’ll find additional options for changing your search, not on a landing page that aims to remove as many obstacles as possible. Only after you have entered your search query are additional options available for filtering results and therefore making additional decisions.
Another important design feature of the search results page to pay attention to is that the original search query is still displayed, which is useful as it reduces the load on our memory. Working memory is a cognitive system that temporarily stores information and is important for reasoning, behavior management, and decision making. Its capacity is limited, so the more decisions are made, the less likely we are to quickly recall items previously stored in working memory. You can think of every element on a page as a potential decision point: people browse the page looking for information that is relevant to what they are looking for and mentally assess whether the content can help them achieve their goal. Therefore, it is helpful to see the original search query if users have forgotten what they were originally looking for.
The next important key part of Google search is performance. Google search is known for its speed of delivering results – it even displays the time it took to get those results at the top of the page. This is directly related to Doherty’s threshold, which states that performance improves when the computer and its users interact at a pace (<400ms) that ensures they don't have to wait for each other… If the search results appear for a long time, you might start thinking about something else. Instead, Google prioritizes performance and delivers results as quickly as possible. This will ensure that we remain focused on the task at hand and get the results we want to learn more. Performance is an important part of the overall user experience and Google understands this.
Now let’s move on to the visual aspects of the search results page, which is optimized for crawling. As mentioned, all results are presented in a list, and each is rendered as a prominent chunk of content with large spacing between chunks. This not only makes it easy to tell one result from another, but it also helps people quickly scan the list and determine which result is most likely to contain the information they are looking for. The hierarchy of information in each result is clear, consistent, and easy to scan. This is closely related to the psychological concept of chunking, the process by which individual chunks of an information set are broken up into pieces and then grouped into a meaningful whole. In terms of UX design, chunking helps us manage the grouping and organization of content. When we break up content, we actually make it easier to understand. People can then scan the content, identify information that suits their goals, and consume that information to achieve their goal.
By structuring content into visually distinct groups with a clear hierarchy, we can align the information presented with the way people evaluate and process digital content.
Finally, it is impossible to analyze visual information without remembering Gestalt psychology, and Google search results demonstrate its principles. One very notable Gestalt law is the law of proximity, which states that objects that are near or close to each other tend to group together… The spacing between each result contributes to the overall crawlability of the page, but also helps to effectively group each result as a related cluster of information. In addition, the law of connectivity can also be seen by the border surrounding certain elements, such as videos and featured snippets. This border helps to visually connect content as well as separate it from other outcomes by giving it a little more priority. This is an additional level of hierarchy that helps crawl the page again.
Over the more than 21 years of its existence, Google search has been progressively improved to enhance people’s ability to quickly retrieve information based on a search query. It did this by removing barriers, prioritizing performance, and making it easy to scan results. They turned this experience into a science and as a result made Google Search a ubiquitous utility that helps countless people find information every day on the vast expanses of the Internet.