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How Google Makes Sure Google Now Is Useful, Personal, And Efficient–And Not Creepy

Google Now honcho Aparna Chennapragada on the art of turning information into bite-sized, actionable cards.

How Google Makes Sure Google Now Is Useful, Personal, And Efficient–And Not Creepy
[Photo: Flickr user Roving Eye 365]

When Google director of product management Aparna Chennapragada was growing up in south India, she liked reading the newspapers that local stores used to wrap up goods. She enjoyed doing puzzles. And she was a comics fan.

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That may not sound like a collection of pursuits that would naturally lead someone to pursue a computer-science education and career. But Chennapragada says that it helped get her where she is–which happens to be spearheading Google Now, the information-right-when-you-need-it service that is baked into Android phones and the Chrome browser. It’s also available in Google’s search app for iOS, is core to the Android Wear smartwatch experience, and is part of the Android Auto car platform.

Google Now is about figuring out what information matters to people, and then delivering it in a clear, concise, and highly visual fashion. Suddenly, Chennapragada’s interest in news, puzzles, and comics sounds like a logical background. And as Google gets ready for its I/O conference–where the Google Now team will woo developers with new tools for third-party apps–I talked with her about where the service has been, and where it’s going.

Aparna Chennapragada at Google HQ in Mountain View, Calif.

The Three Pillars Of Google Now

Chennapragada joined Google in 2008, working at first on YouTube and later on the eponymous search engine. “I started looking at this project, Google Now,” she remembers. “It was in its nascent stages. And the thing that immediately became apparent to me was that mobile changes everything. It sounds super clichéd and obvious–whenever people say that I roll my eyes, like duh, Department of Obvious!”

Less obvious, she says, are the concepts that add up to Google Now. First, “context is everything. It’s not just about what you spell out in terms of what you need for information. Just the fact that you’re at the mall–of course you need the mall directory and the hours. Just the fact that you’re at Disneyland–of course you want to know what the ride wait times are.”

Another shift from desktop search: “Push is as powerful as pull.” Google, she says, knowing that she’s a Jon Stewart fan, should be smart enough to proactively alert her that Trevor Noah was replacing him as host of The Daily Show. “I would have wanted to know it. I shouldn’t have to peck at it and find it. The information should find me.”

Third, “you just don’t have as much time. The way people use these phones is, you have these short bursts of attention. Like I was waiting for you, and I had two minutes, and I was checking something out. The way information is consumed is in this bite-sized, actionable form.”

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By proactively displaying to-the-point cards of useful, personalized information, Google Now pointed toward a future beyond Google search in its conventional form. Chennapragada knew she wanted to be part of it.

Google Now cards for TuneIn, ABC News, and FoodPanda

What Google Now Knows

Google Now, which debuted on the Galaxy Nexus phone in 2012, got good reviews from the get-go. At the same time it reminded people of just how much Google knew about them–from business transactions in their Gmail to geographic meanderings tracked by the Latitude app. Google Now pulled all these data points together in a way that was new, clever, and–to some–jarring. As one early TechCrunch appraisal put it, “There’s a fine line between cool and creepy.”

Three years later, Chennapragada acknowledges that Google Now’s understanding of its users’ lives can feel uncanny. She tells the story of a traveler who was on his way to the San Francisco Bay Area’s San Jose airport. He only realized that his ticket was really for the Oakland airport when he noticed Google Now giving him an estimate of the driving time to get there–showing that it had a better handle on this particular trip than he did.

“”We’ve been pretty clear about two things,” Chennapragada says, addressing privacy concerns. “One, making sure that the user is in control. All of this is an opt-in feature. You’ve got to say ‘Yeah, yeah, I want Google Now to help me with this stuff.’ The second thing is, all of this data is tied to very, very clear user benefits. I run into this situation often. I’m driving and trying to pick up my son at day care before it gets too late. If I want to know about a traffic situation ahead of me–of course, Google, please use where I am and get me that information.”

Microsoft’s Cortana assistant–along with Apple’s Siri, one of Google Now’s two closest rivals–offers a feature called Notebook that lets users review and edit its knowledge base. Chennapragada says that Google is also looking at giving Google Now users the ability to fiddle with what the service knows about them, making it less mysterious and even more pertinent. But doing that in an elegant way is no cakewalk.

“We had cricket scores for the World Cup,” she explains. We had a couple of emails that were literally contradictory in terms of feedback. One guy is like, ‘I guess it’s nice that you guys are showing these cricket scores, but I’m annoyed that you didn’t tell me that this cricketer’s wife was visiting for this match.’ Okay. And then the second email was, ‘Just because I’m interested in cricket, why are you showing me all sorts of information? I really just want to know the semi-finals and the finals.'”

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“The user shouldn’t have to spell out everything. But how do we give ways for users to say ‘No, no, I am interested in Jon Stewart, but I’m not a huge fan of Stephen Colbert?’ How do you do the dialogue? You have to do it carefully. There are products that do it where it feels like you’re filling out a tax form. Nobody does it. We’re starting to figure out how to make that work in a way that gives users agency and control, but doesn’t put all the onus on them.”

No Margin For Error

Even when users are comfortable with Google Now’s deep knowledge of their activities, habits, and whereabouts, making it all work is a huge challenge–maybe more so than with Google search in its traditional, desktop-centric form. For one thing, proactively giving people advice about managing their day can go spectacularly wrong when it’s based on faulty information.

“What we’ve found is that the cost of getting something wrong is much higher,” Chennapragada says. “Because you just told a guy to get in his car and drive to Home Depot, and guess what? Home Depot is closed. For every one thing you get wrong, you probably have to have 50 or a hundred moments of delight to have that trust.”

For its first few years, Google Now relied on Google’s own services, giving the company tight control over its content and presentation. That changed recently when it began displaying cards based on third-party apps–over a hundred sources so far, including Eat24, Instacart, Jawbone Up, OpenTable, Pandora, RunKeeper, Spotify, Zipcar, and many more. They make Google Now less of a summary of your relationship with Google, and more of an alert system for your entire life.

A Spotify Google Now card

All those data sources open up the potential for more moments of delight. But in a worst-case scenario, cramming Google Now with stuff could leave it feeling less relevant. It might even come off as spammy. That’s why the third-party hooks are only available to select partners at the moment. “Once the experience is right, we do want to open it up and let many, many developers take part in this,” says Chennapragada.

Normally, you might reasonably assume that a service that added new features at Google Now’s current clip was doing so with the goal of occupying more and more mindshare. But Chennapragada says that Google Now’s future lies in demanding less time, not more of it. People are only going to get busier, she believes: Someone who is willing to devote two minutes to using a smartphone today may only have 30 seconds to spend a few years from now.

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“Fundamentally, technology should do a lot more heavy lifting for me as a user,” she says. “We have a chance at taking the work out of the phone, if you will, and making our smartphones smarter. I want us to really push hard toward that.”

About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

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