Since the dawn of search (1996), Google has set the standard for the design of results. Namely, none. Just 10 blue links. (Or however many show up these days.) No bells. No whistles. Just links.
Bing thinks it’s time to re-imagine that approach. Ten blue links might have made sense in the dial-up era, when bandwidth was scarce, says Brian MacDonald, corporate vice president for core search program management at Microsoft. But, he tells Fast Company, in an age when so many people have broadband, and the web is exploding with visual information, there’s no reason not to create a better experience with some good old-fashioned design thinking.
He might be right. Bing has invested heavily in this space, building a team that includes experts in architecture and motion as well as visual, interaction, and information design. And it’s succeeded in luring some of Microsoft’s best minds off other products to come work on what used to be considered a design backwater. While Bing still trails far behind Google--the latest Experian Hitwise data  gives Google 68% of the market and Bing only 13%--the upstart has nevertheless come a long way in the year and a half since it first launched. And it’s growing fast--from December to January, its share of the market jumped 21%. Google’s share, meanwhile, shrunk 2% in that same time frame.
Fast Company sat down with MacDonald--Bing’s overall product leader--to learn more about the competitive role he thinks design is now playing in the Search Wars.
Where does Bing’s thinking about design come from?
Search is absolutely a consumer product, but, so far in its evolution, it’s been created with the algorithm front-most. The user interface was too optimized around that, rather than around the humans that were interacting with it. The whole mantra about Google being the Plain-Jane, Spartan look-and-feel was a good design aesthetic for the time in which it was created, when speed was everything. But we have massively moved on.
We also have a lot of admiration for what Apple is doing, and clearly Apple puts establishing an emotional connection with users as a core value tenant for all products. That’s just classic Consumer Product Development 101, but our industry hadn’t evolved to that state yet. We were stuck back with thinking about the technology and not the interface to the consumer.
So how is Bing folding emotion into its design?
It starts with the home page. The home page is the cover of the book. We wanted the cover of the Bing book to exude the value system of Bing and right off the bat make that emotional connection. It puts you at ease and in that mindset of exploration. That’s why it’s always slightly aspirational, a place you might want to go, or an interesting thing you didn’t know about.
How do features like Bing’s “Visual Search” play into this strategy?
The typical search is: “Here’s a bag of words, and I’m trying to find a particular website.” But there are times where your search task is: “There’s a collection of things, and I want to narrow down that collection to zoom in on one particular thing.” A lot of those tasks are visual in nature, and the decisions you make are somewhat emotional in nature.
So, for example, if you’re searching for dog breeds [as a prelude to getting a new dog], for this kind of task, the 10 blue links are kind of stale. If you’re trying to choose between different breeds, it’s interesting to see all the dog breeds that the American Kennel Club recognizes. [MacDonald enters “dog breeds” into Bing, and then clicks the “Visual Search” tab.] And you say, for our family, we want a medium-sized dog, and we don’t want one that sheds. [MacDonald clicks “Hypoallergenic” at the top, then Medium on the left, under Sizes.]
And then you click, for example, my dog, the Portuguese Water Dog, then you can see a collection of information about these dogs. It’s a whole different way to find out a set of information. It matches the style of how you want to go about it. We’re trying to bring that exploration aspect to search, in an easier fashion.
Even if that is the optimal experience, will users nevertheless still have to get over the hump of their preconceived notions of how search works?
I think it’s actually easier than people might think. Users don’t obsess about where the line is between search and the rest of the Internet. It’s something that the industry pays a lot of attention to, but people just come in with the task in mind. Even with Google, you start your search and then you [click through] to a richer experience on the web. We thought that transition doesn’t have to be as jarring. Users are already in a rich experience out on the web. They’re just not always in a rich experience in the search engine. So what we’re trying to do is lower the impedance mismatch between the rest of the web and the search engine.
What else is going on in the world of tech that is driving this new paradigm?
Search is extending to all different devices. It’s not just PC-oriented anymore. Mobile was first, and that’s happening more and more. There are more and more searches being done on TVs. Search in cars, and on tablets. There will be a lot more variety of contexts in which you’ll interact with search. In a lot of these different contexts, it’s not going to be a predominantly “10 blue links” paradigm. There will be a more visual paradigm for sure. There will be [advances in] how to take advantage of touch and gesture input, and voice, the Kinect-style gesturing. There’s a lot that’s going to evolve over the next couple of years to provide the best interaction experience for different devices.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
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E.B. Boyd is FastCompany.com’s Silicon Valley reporter. Email .