Searching for Sensitive Topics: Q&A with Google Designer Ankita Akerkar
We speak about designing for information dense subjects and users seeking answers on sensitive topics.
Ankita Akerkar has been designing for Google Search for almost 6 years now! In her time working on the worlds most popular search engine she has worked on several features and queries that can be sensitive for users to google - this includes searching for conditions like Dyslexia and ADHD. Through her work she has had to design informative experiences for billions of users looking for information in incredibly sensitive times. The following is a Q&A I had with Ankita.
Q: So Ankita can tell me about what you have designed in your career?
At Google I have worked on many teams but currently I work on the “Social Responsibility” team that means I have designed user journeys that include:
Long term conditions: Searches like Dyslexia and ADHD fell underneath that
Government benefits: Searches like unemployment and disability
and variety of other information like COVID, recipes and jobs
Overall my favorite types of problems to design for are the ones with the most impact on the user. I love helping users others might ignore or are underserved.
Q: How do you think about making information digestible for all types of people?
Ankita: One of the things that we like to consider is reading level, we try to keep it around 8th grade [level] this is especially important when people are searching for really complex, very dense topics (like neurodiversity). I often collaborate with my UX Writer to translate medical or technical jargon into user centered language.
We also make sure that all of our designs have a maximum amount of information presented to the user. Some best practices there are:
Having a character limit
Having expanded sections and descriptive headers for there sections
Hiding additional information in tabs
When people are looking for an answer, they want to find it, they don’t want to read through or dig through a bunch of links or suggestions. We optimize the UX for them to find the right answer as quickly as possible.
Q: You mentioned in our past conversions sometimes users are looking up sensitive information like “Dyslexia” how do you help users feel comfortable and trust your product when they have these questions?
Sometimes in these sensitive situations people don’t reach out to their community because they are scared and Google is the first place you think of to ask a private question. When users are searching these more sensitive topic areas we are guided by giving them confidence that the information we are presenting to them are from credible sources.
Beyond just the data from the design perspective, we are focused on properly setting context, for instance numbers and stats are always shown in relation to each other so users can gauge how serious something is. So users don’t get scared by a big number that might in context might not be so bad.
A good example is when you search for something like Dyslexia it will show how many people are diagnosed every year so you can put your question into perspective, and make you feel like you’re not isolated in having this question.
Q: How do in think about making these experiences accessible?
I would say my biggest tip for accessibility is prioritize your “edge cases”. More often than not edge cases are not edge at all and the problems that are typically seen in a niche type of user are felt across your entire user population. Talk to these users and prioritize them in user research studies they will give you the biggest insight into how to solve these problems.
Q: Are there any particular design methods you use when making these types of experiences?
YES! There are a few things we do
These are very critical user journeys so it’s really important to get it right when someone searches these things. We make lots of journey maps for each of these mission critical searches to try and understand the users emotional state and what information we want to show when.
We also make personas for each of these more sensitive search topics, and we really think about who these people are because if you design for everyone you design for no one. We differentiate between the people who are looking for help and who are just looking for general information. You might look up Dyslexia because you think you have it or because you are just interested in learning what it is.
Q: Do you have any surprising stories from user testing when designing this types of situation?
Honestly, less is more when designing for sensitive topics, for instance if you give people to much information like detailed statistics it can overwhelm and even scared them, causing them to abandon their search and not get the information they need. That really surprised me at first because I would assume more more depth would be helpful for someone trying to find the answer for a critical or sensitive question.