Sneaky Google Search UI Design

by Sebastian Benthall

I am very impressed by Google’s web design team right now.

Maybe you’ve noted this; maybe you haven’t. Go to Google’s home page right now. Enter the URL into your browser, then hit “Enter.” Then do nothing.

What do you see? Nothing but Google Search, pure and simple.

It’s not until you trigger some browser event by moving your mouse over the web page document or causing the search field to lose focus that the rest of the user interface fades in.


It’s hard to do a before/after in a screenshot because (I didn’t know this…) Print Screen triggers the necessary browser event. But in fact that makes it easier to catch it mid-fade. Note the weak blues:

Google's links fading in

This is brilliant. It shows, first off, that the designers were very familiar with what is possible in the browser. Rather than seeing a page as a static document, it is a temporal continuum. Though this isn’t news to a lot of web designers, this sort of design ingenuity would get lost in a lot of organizational web design workflows because this kind of detail can’t get communicated to developers easily by wireframes or mockups.

The design shows a sensitivity to user psychology that is almost touching. The user who goes to the Google home page to search for something will never see the links. Load page. Text field in focus. Type. Enter. Done. Most web sites would consider this kind of streamlined workflow the epitome of design. But this design doesn’t just provide the attentive user an unobstructed path, it shields their unconscious from distraction.


And yet I find something insidious about it. It make me feel like Google is hiding something. People used to say things like, “Google’s search interface is so clean and simple! Google is just about providing really smart web search. Google is just smart guys hiding unobtrusively behind text field that can’t possible take over your world.” It’s a precious public image.

Their home page’s increasing clutter belies that image with extra tabs, advanced search options, links to Business Solutions, and more. And now that search results have a left sidebar with such simply utilitarian features as the Wonder Wheel, even our lizard-evolved brain stems may start to suspect that Google has outgrown its original simplicity. It has become impossible to ignore the existence of the corporate behemoth behind the services we’ve entangled ourselves in.

The fluidly fading design tilts toward innocent bliss. Awareness of Google-the-corporation is now strictly opt-in. I can’t tell if that is considerate or creepy.