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

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

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 navigation, and this was also true in India.

What followed was “nimble, on-the-ground field research” to understand how people in India use landmarks and what types of landmarks are good for navigation.

The Google Maps research revealed that Indians use landmarks in a few key ways, including

a) Orientation: for example, ‘Head towards the water

b) Turn description: ‘Turn past the shopping centre’.

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

d) Error correction: ‘You will see xxx place if you have gone too far’.

Google Maps then used parks, monuments, shopping centres, landmark buildings and petrol pumps to help people confirm their direction and correct errors.

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


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Updated: 02 Nov 2023, 12:25 PM IST

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Author: Shirley