How Google Maps solved India’s street name problem; Former employee explains

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Elizabeth Laraki, the Google Maps UX Design Lead from 2007 to 2009, shared the story on X about how Google Maps was able to overcome the street name problem in India and become a dominant player in the country.

Laraki’s LinkedIn profile states that she led the global design team for Google Maps (across US, Australia, Switzerland, China, and India and worked on integrating map view for local results, reviews, driving, transit, walking directions and more. 

Google Maps launched in India back in 2008 but the company quickly faced a problem unique to India. As Laraki explains street names were the foundation of Google Maps but that quickly became a problem for the company in India. 

Laraki says Google Maps directions became ‘pretty much useless’ in India with many streets not having names or having multiple names or not being known by their official names. 

Google Maps then had the option of assuming that its current navigation system was good enough for India and it would get better or people might eventually adapt to it but the company instead wanted its product to thrive in a massive potential market. 

The solution: 

Laraki notes that the company knew that many communities around the world used landmarks rather than street names for navigating and it was also true for India. 

What followed later on was a ‘nimble on the ground field research’ aimed at understanding how people in India use landmarks and what kinds of landmarks were good for navigating. 

The research by Google Maps revealed that Indian use landmarks in a few key ways including: 

a) Orientation: example ‘Head towards the water’

b) Turn description: ‘Turn past the mall’

c) See if they are on the correct path: ‘You will see a petrol pump on the right’

d) Error correction: ‘You will see xxx location, if you have gone tooo far’

Google Maps then used parks, monuments, shopping centers, notable buildings, and petrol pumps to help people confirm their direction and error correct. 

The changes brought by the Google Maps team in 2009 helped the company become the ‘dominant navigational product for India’.

 

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Updated: 02 Nov 2023, 11:56 AM IST

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