Google Maps in India was a tough venture that was eventually rolled out successfully, but as with most things in the country, it required quite a bit of jugaad to get it into place. And no, we are not referring to the technology available, which at that time was the latest available. So, what did it take to roll out a reliable Google Maps? In the words of Elizabeth Laraki, alum at Google Maps, it took more than just rolling out to the designated area and mapping it as per the available signposts. Laraki ran into what then looked like an insurmountable problem, In a very long post on X, she said, “In 2008, Google Maps launched in India. But we quickly ran into a problem: Nobody used street names. And street names were the foundation of Google Maps.”
In effect, what she and her team had to go through was to stray off the beaten path, so to speak, to ensure that the directions were spot on. She added in her X post, “The team had to make some big adaptations. 15 years later, the changes have stood the test of time.”
How the Google team put India on Google Maps
Laraki revealed the process adopted that actually paid off handsomely. In effect, it was jugaad at its best. Here we let Laraki explain it in her own words, “Here’s how the team came up with creative solutions to adapt Google Maps to work in India”.
“When Google Maps launched in India, turn-by-turn directions were unusable.
Because there were no road names, directions looked like this:
Turn Left at NH 17 | 11.0km
Turn Left | 0.7km
Turn Left | 0.2km
Slight Left | 6.3km
This was before real-time, accurate GPS in phones had become mainstream.
In short, directions were pretty much useless in India.
We could have left the product as it was.
We could have assumed it was good enough, would get better over time, or that eventually, people would adapt.
But India was a massive potential market and we wanted the product to thrive.
The solution wasn’t just a case of acquiring and cataloging street names.
Many streets either didn’t have names, had multiple names, or weren’t known by their official names.
So we had to find an alternative.
We already knew that many communities around the world relied on landmarks (rather than street names) for navigating.
e.g. “Turn left at the park, head towards the water”
We knew this was also true in India.
But we had to confirm that landmark-based navigation would work.
And if it did, how we could make it work?
So we dove in.
We started to explore how Google Maps could work if it oriented around landmarks.
But we needed to understand 2 key questions:
1. How did people use landmarks to navigate in India?
2. What types of landmarks were good for navigating?
This is where user research came in.
At the time, Google had robust support for user research.
There were research labs on campus with eye tracking technology and one-way mirrors.
There was a team dedicated to recruiting research participants.
But in this case, my friend and researcher extraordinaire, Olga (@okhroust) simply focused on how she could best answer these key questions.
She put together a creative and scrappy research plan.
And then she and Janet, the designer, hopped on a plane to India.
What followed was nimble, on the ground field research to understand, first-hand, the answers to these questions.
They creatively explored various approaches including:
• Calling businesses and asking them for directions to their stores
• Asking people to draw diagrams of routes to familiar places
• Following people around as they navigated unfamiliar places
• Recruiting people to keep track of directions they gave or received + later interviewing them on their experiences
• Sharing early designs of landmark based directions and asking for feedback
Rather than relying on sophisticated technologies or being bounded by formal research methods, they creatively tried several different tactics to understand how locals navigated their way through India.
Olga and Janet found that people used landmarks to navigate in a few key ways:
• Orientation: “Head towards the water”
• Description of a turn: “Turn just past the Big Bazaar”
• Confirmation of the right path: “You’ll see a petrol station on the right”
• Error correction: “If you get to the roundabout, you’ve gone too far”
Landmarks that were used for navigating included parks, monuments, shopping centers, notable buildings, stores, petrol stations, roundabouts, etc — basically anything that anyone would notice while on the road.
And so the team reworked turn-by-turn street directions to include navigational landmarks to help orient people, signal turns, confirm direction, and error correct.
The team worked through several iterations before landing on a final solution that emphasized landmarks, but also subtly included road names (when available):
1. Head Northwest Banaswadi Railway Station Rd | 0.2km
Pass by Sri Venkateshwara Stores (on the left)
2. At the end of the road, turn left | 12m
3. Take the first right | 0.8km
Toward Arabic College Main Rd
4. At the end of the road, turn left | 0.2km
Onto Arabic College Main Rd
Pass by Una Cycle Traders (On the right)
5. At the Dr BR Ambed ker Cir, continue onto Tannery Rd | 1.8km
Pass by Dr BR Ambedkar (on the right in 1.0km)
The research drove the product changes that helped transform Google Maps into the dominant navigational product for India.
A lot has changed in the last 15 years with the pervasiveness of location-enabled mobile phones, cheap mobile data, and generally how locals navigate in India.
But the use of landmarks to help people navigate through India has stood the test of time.
What I love about this story and my 2 biggest takeaways are:
1. Research is a critical tool for ensuring you’re building a good product
2. Research can be as simple as just talking to people to answer your questions
tl;dr: If you are looking for answers, go talk to people.“
In another post, Laraki revealed what the best resource was, “Several people asked how we captured local landmarks. I asked @okhroust and both of our memories are a little foggy. But at the time, Maps was all about user generated content. People could both add and correct info on Google Maps. So I imagine we relied heavily on UGC.”