After Apple booted Google Maps from iOS last year, Daniel Graf led the development of a beautiful, refreshed mapping experience that shot to number one in the iTunes store and kicked Apple’s ass on its own turf. Here’s how Graf made it happen—in his own words.
While Google is a big company, there's still a lot of entrepreneurial spirit behind it. We started with the new iOS app last year, and I got the ownership. I was responsible for the whole thing—from the engineering side, product side, and design side. My previous startup, Kyte, was one of the first companies dealing with video streaming back when it was really hard to do on the smartphone. When I came to Google, I was director of the Google Mobile Apps Lab, this incubator where we developed this mobile-first approach that is applied across the company now. So while I had no experience with maps, I’ve always been focused on creating simple experiences.
We have a very successful Android version of Google Maps, so the easiest thing to do was to say, this is super-successful, users love it, so why don’t we just port it over to iOS? But I wanted to challenge the team. While the Android version is a great product, you can also tell it’s been around for a while. You have to access everything via menus—it’s not really best-use-case driven anymore. I said, let’s take a step back—what if we could start from scratch and forget anything we’ve ever done? We have the foundation—the Google data, the mapping data, the local business data, the imagery, the navigation algorithms—it’s a dream to start with.
When Larry [Page, CEO] took over Google a couple of years ago, he made it clear that for him, it's not just about having a functional product. It also has to be beautiful, and it has to be very useful, and an amazing experience. You’ve seen this on the desktop for the last three years, and on mobile. It’s coming step-by-step now. Google has had this trend of questioning your user experience. And we said to ourselves, if we’re going to invest that much in creating a new experience here, it needs to be the best ever created.
We had design reviews every single day, down to the pixel. Everyone in the room, from the product team to the design team, would discuss features. At first you might think, What a waste of time. But that hour a day is the reason why, when you read the reviews and use it yourself, the product seems so polished. Three years ago, Google wouldn’t have done products like this. It’s such a seamless, integrated user interface. And lately, we’ve had several products like this, right? Gmail looks really nice on iOS. So does Google+, and now Maps. There’s a theme there. It’s an integrated experience.
The challenge is, if you’re a Google Maps user now, you know how the product works. But there’s a lot of features in there. There’s tons of things you can do on the map. You can select things, you can start searching restaurants and categories, then you can look at the images, Street View, or reviews. Then you can look at the directions, and view them by car, walking, or public transit. Then you can navigate to satellite view. So it’s a really long list. The challenge was, how do you simplify things? That’s when I said to the team, "What if this app doesn’t have any menus?"
There were a lot of iterations, but the end result was what we call the Infosheet. When you search for a restaurant or place, you see the point on the map, and it’s marked there. But at the bottom you have this Infosheet that you can tap or swipe up. It has all of the local business information, which is as important as the map. Before, you could only look at either the map, or the local business data. But they were never integrated together. The bonus of this framework is, we can show the directions on the map, but if you tap the Infosheet and slide it up, you can also see how long it takes, and all the steps to get there. It even chooses the last mode of transportation you used. So the framework of the Infosheet proved to be really powerful.
When it launched, it was of course very nice to see the reception. But the happiest moment was a few months earlier, when we started testing this internally at Google. People who had never touched the product before were like, This takes mobile navigation and mapping to a whole new level. I think Larry was pleased with our launch with the product. He very much focuses on the user experience. The app is pretty much in line with what he’s been preaching to us, for a long time. Given what he’s told me, it satisfies that.
[Photo by Ian Spanier]