From a 20% project to Google’s future: Q&A with Google Now’s creator

Baris Gultekin

Google is pretty good at knowing what we need before we do. From a company that seems to continuously innovate, the launch of Google Now was nothing if not inspired.

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Google Now is the internet giant’s offering in the hotly contested intelligent personal assistant space. The Android-only service is an extension of the OS’ native Google Search app, using a natural language user interface to answer questions, make recommendations, and perform actions by delegating requests to a set of web services. Now is all about predicting what people will search for before they do it. It’s gained impressive traction since launch, dubbed 2012’s innovation of the year by Popular Science and called Google’s mobile future by TechCrunch.

A direct competitor to Apple’s Siri, the assistant gathers data quickly to be able to seamlessly help the user.

Memeburn Managing Editor Michelle Atagana was in Silicon Valley this week and got the chance to chat to Now co-creator Baris Gultekin about what inspired the project and its future. Like almost all the cool things at Google, Now came to being as part of a 20% project between Googlers Andrew Kirmse, Ben Gomes and Baris Gultekin. Gultekin, a product management director, needed to find a way to get the information he wanted ready and waiting for him without too much hard work. So like anyone who works at Google, he decided to just build it.

Though Gultekin says there is nothing to new announce yet for Now, he does hint at interesting future plans, saying that Google’s aim is to “help [its] users wherever they are”. Whether that means cross-platform pollination for the app remains to be seen.

Memeburn: Could you tell us a little bit about the vision that brought about Google Now?

Baris Gultekin: We launched Google Now about a year ago at Google I/O. Phones are getting smarter, they’re getting very context-aware, and we’d like to connect that with the power of Google, which is running on top of our services our users use everyday. We’d like to connect the two and tell you things that you’d like to know at just the right time. Our mission is to give you the information you need at just the right time.

It’s quite ambitious. We need to understand in what circumstance you need what type of information, and how we can give that information to you without you having to dig for it. That’s where we started. The types of things that we launched are [what you need in the moment] — you tend to check for weather in the morning so you know what to wear. You tend to check for traffic in the morning, so you know to avoid traffic and take the alternate route. That’s the high-level goal.

The interesting aspect of it is — and Larry [Page, Google co-founder and CEO] has also said — is that we want computers to do all the hard work so that our users can just focus on what matters in their life. You want to spend more time with people around you and you want the computers to work for you so you don’t have to spend time doing those things, instead you focus on your life. That’s something we care deeply about. We’d like to do these things for you so you don’t waste time doing them.

It’s just the beginning. I think it’s really exciting — I think it’s one of the first times where we’re very proactive in helping you. Not only from Google’s perspective, but from a computing perspective, this is a pretty good evolution of computing and of Google. From Google’s perspective, we started with having users type in the thing that need and enter the query. Then we went to Google instant — we’re obsessed with speed so we’d like to give you the information before you’re finished typing. As you type we complete it we show you the answers and that’s faster. This is even faster than that — without you having to type, here is the information you may need.

From a computing perspective, you had computers that required you to have a keyboard, and then you moved to lots of different devices you interact with, with touch for instance. Now you’re interacting with the device with your voice, without any interactions. It’s just giving you the information you need.

MB: Will there be a Google Now for other platforms?

BG: It’s running on Android right now (JellyBean). We don’t really have anything to announce yet. But at a high level, we just want to help our users wherever they are. We have a lot of Android users right now, and it’s increasing dramatically. So it’s currently only on JellyBean.

MB: Is this the future for the company? I’m thinking of Google chairperson Eric Schmidt’s autonomous search comments?

BG: I think there is always going to be us trying to predict what your needs may be and trying to help with it, as well as there’s always going to be a time when you’d like to ask for something. So we always want to do a great job supporting both. We have the demand side of things — you ask the device who is the prime minister of Canada, because you are having a conversation and that came up. But at the same time, you also want it to tell you ‘hey, there is a great photo spot’ because you’ve never been here and it’s right around the corner so you may want to check it out.

MB: How will Glass and Google Now influence each other?

BG: Glass is very exciting. I’m focused on Google Now, but I think they’re very complementary. You want computers to do all the hard work, so technology takes a back seat so you focus on what matters to you.

MB: How does Google go about picking which areas to innovate in?

BG: Google actually fosters that culture. We have the concept of 20% projects. We hire smart people, and we encourage them to do a great job in their daily lives but also spend a fraction of their time on projects they’re excited about outside of their work. So Google Now came about from such an interaction. It was a 20% project. I wanted to do something with the context-aware phone and connecting it with Google services to be more proactive. I found an engineer who shared the same passion, and we started a 20% project.

We built a couple of demos and that got our executives really excited and they asked us to launch. I think this culture of innovation within Google encourages projects like this to come out with grass-roots efforts. The ones that get a lot of people excited tend to flourish.

MB: But what about the privacy issues around an app having access to all your information?

BG: We care deeply about both privacy and security. First of all, we make sure the users understand what they’re getting. The product is an opt-in product. We show during the process what you can get and that you click here to opt in. We also give a lot of control to our users. So you can always say ‘no, I don’t want to see this. I don’t want to use this card’. It’s a combination of the two that make a very big difference.

We’re also very careful in making sure all your data is very secure, and Google has led the industry and set a great example of building security around the users’ data.

MB: There’s a lot of information that can be suggested — how do you begin to decide what is relevant and when you’ve shared too much?

BG: We want to make sure that we can help the user at the right time with the right information. To be able to tell that there is traffic on your commute, we need to understand that this is your commute. Once that happens, we will tell you ‘here is your commute and here is an alternate route you can take’. It’s very important for us to think about the situations in which we can help the users, and do our best to find the right information to show to you at the right time.

For instance, if you’re travelling, chances are you care about if your flight was delayed or not. Users would really like to get that information, and we’ll show you your flight status with a link to the email if you want to see more. We try to balance how we can show you the information but not be intrusive. It’s very important for us. We are very careful about not being too interruptive. We wouldn’t buzz your phone unless it’s something [important]. If you have a meeting, and you’re running late for a meeting, that’s the only time we’ll buzz your phone.

We’ll show you the weather forecast if you’re travelling to Rome tomorrow. We’ll show you what the weather is like in Rome, so you know what to pack, but that will never interrupt. If you choose to go into Google Now, you’ll see that information.

MB: How important were design aesthetics when it came to Google Now?

BG: Very important. Google is increasingly paying a lot of attention to design, and Android has been leading from that perspective as well. We worked very hard on ensuring the design is very clean and simple, and that it’s also in line with our philosophy. So we want to, at just the right time, show you just the right information. So there will be a short amount of time where you’ll glance at Google Now, so it needs to be very clean and give you absolutely the right information. So design aesthetics is very important.

We built a header, for instance, that is contextual, so it’ll change based on your location and time of day. As the time goes by you’ll see the sun rise and sunset on that. Those little things delight our users and we’d like to continue to delight our users when it’s not expected. We have a very talented design team. They are all the top-notch designers in the industry and they are the ones leading the design.

MB: What has been the reaction to the product?

BG: People love Google Now. Everyone who is really excited about what it can do and about the potential. We want our users to be delighted and using our products daily and we care deeply that it works well with their use cases. We’re really happy with how Google Now has been received.

We’re also super excited about the potential of the space. Being able to anticipate your needs, and being able to give you the right information is something that fits really well with Google’s mission. We’d like to continue innovating in that space.

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