Meet Jon Wiley, Google Search's Lead For User Experience, Humor, And Easter Eggs

Want to understand your users? Take an acting class, says Wiley, who, among other important tasks, is responsible for hiding Blade Runner and Zork references in Google products.

Jon Wiley leads the User Experience Team for Google Search. The fact that you’re probably puzzled by that job description—isn’t there just a search field, and Google gives me back the results?—is actually a testament to how well Wiley’s team is doing its job.

While Google Instant was perhaps the last great tectonic shift in the Google search experience, over the years, Google has actually rolled out a suite of changes to the product. Many of these derive from Google’s restructuring of the information it indexes under its so-called “Knowledge Graph” (which knows a New York "Giant" from a San Francisco "Giant" from the kind that Jack slays); the more subtlely these improvements have snaked their way into your life, the better, from Wiley's point of view. Wiley’s team is likewise tasked with making novel forms of search—voice search on mobile devices, say—as seamless as possible.

If part of Wiley’s job is disappearing into the background, it’s interesting that another of the hats he wears—something like Google’s resident prankster—sometimes thrusts him into the foreground (as with a viral comedy video that's pushing a million views, below). We caught up with Wiley to learn more about what comedy and performance have to do with the best user experience design.

FAST COMPANY: What’s your role and history at Google?

JON WILEY: On paper, I lead the User Experience design team for Google Search, a group designing all aspects of the search experience on web, mobile devices, tablet devices, etc. I’ve been doing that for about four and a half years. When I started at Google [in 2006], I worked on what is now called Google Apps. My first project was designing the sign-up forms for that, and even then I injected bits of what I think of as Google humor. There was an example company name, and I put Tyrell Corporation, from Blade Runner. Somewhere else I put FrobozzCo, from the Zork games. Little weird things like that that no one saw. Two people in the world probably noticed and were like, “Yeah, man, Tyrell!”

Why are Easter eggs like that so important to Google?

One of the things I love about Easter eggs is that they create a neat little emotional bond between the person who discovers them and the person who created them. They’re a human touch, an acknowledgement that behind all the complicated algorithms, the careful design and the placement of pixels, are real human beings, real people, doing their very best to make what we hope is an amazing product. It’s a subtle personal signature, a clever, wry, slightly geeky thing. I think my favorite Easter egg in Google is if you Google “recursion.” Googling “Chuck Norris” is a fun one, too. You can also change Google’s language to Elmer Fudd.

You did improv comedy acting for a while, and you’ve made appearances as a performer in Google comedy videos, like this “Autocompleter” one.

This was an April Fool’s joke. I wrote the script, shot everything, edited it. I still occasionally get people who look at me: Aren’t you that guy? Do you type really fast?

What’s the relationship between comedy acting and designing great user experiences?

Originally I wanted to be an astronaut, but in college I switched over to acting. The acting background has been really useful in terms of my current career as a designer. One thing that's key to being a good actor, being convincing and sincere, is empathy—the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Great actors figure out a way to see things from their character’s point of view. That’s a skill that comes in handy for designers. We do use our products, but we’re not the only users of our products. That’s really useful, to be able to put yourself in another frame of mind, to look at things how others might see them.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

[Image courtesy of Google]

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