Designing an alternative search engine

How a french start-up became an european initiative

When my friend Sophie reached out to me to work on her exciting new project, I have to say I was pretty surprised to read the first lines of her email. She was recently hired at a french start-up building a search engine and wanted me to help with some design directions.

“We want to compete with Yahoo, Bing, Google, etc.”

“We are a french start-up building a search engine with a team of 60 people, we want to compete with Yahoo, Bing, Google, etc.

— Ok, that, sounds… ambitious. Difficult to pick stronger opponents, I thought.

I discovered their actual product, Qwant. Not really concerned by search engines alternatives at the time, I have to admit I had never heard of this product, nor any of their competitors in the alternative category. For me, like many, searching for something on the web meant Google/Yahoo/Bing & co.

No tracking, Security, Privacy.

Qwant has a very simple claim. In a world of targeted ads and tracking, their ambition was to create a secure and uncontrolled search engine.

This a directly opposed posture than what other giants offer: “We don’t track anything”, says Éric Léandri, cofounder of Qwant. Besides search, they also work on complementary products around the privacy theme. Qwant has launched in 2015 Qwant Junior, a search engine allowing kids to browse the Internet without being exposed to adult, violent or commercial contents.

More than just an idea, the team presented me their product as a cause they believe in, in favor for a neutral and open Web, without false pretense.

A bit of context

Qwant was launched in 2013. The application reached quickly 1 million unique visitors per month. But in their own opinion, the whole experience was lacking some clarity and appeal.

Qwant’s interface before the redesign

Their primary focus had been engineering for obvious reasons. A non-working search engine, even very private and safe, would have been an instant fail. The design was not cohesive, nor user-friendly sometimes, mostly because the product evolved very quickly and many features were added on the go. Users feedback were generally design oriented, pointing the lack of clarity of the interface for newcomers. It was now time for a big and clean refresh.

The state of search engine interface

The preliminary design research phase was quicker than expected. The ubiquity and popularity of Yahoo, Bing or Google were no surprise, they are the references since the very dark ages of the web, times when searching for something was painful and uncertain, times when Altavista was still a thing (remember Copernic ?). But this is another topic.

The most striking element of that research was the similarity of each search engine . They look, almost, the same. Take the standard result page for “Barack Obama” for example:

Google, Bing, Yahoo. Spot the difference

Same layout, similar look and feel. Simple color palette and typography. A very minimal (brutal?) design. Obviously, some of these decisions were made for performance reasons, ensuring best possible page loading speed, a key element of a search engine experience.

We could easily argue a search engine doesn’t need to look like something else. Probably the main reason why the look and feel of search engines has not significantly changed for a while.

Designing for an outsider

As all the other search engines look the same, there was room to explore something different. On a design perspective, working on the challenger side gave us two options. We could chose to follow the principles from the bigger competitors and try to improve their experience. But that would have been working on their field, performance and accuracy, with less means.

We could also choose to work on a different approach to stand out from the others, using our outsider position as a key differentiator for Qwant. As the product aimed to be different, we should at least, try to find something different to provide to the users.

Technology + Humanity

Our primary focus was users privacy and security, but also to bring something new for the whole experience. We wanted to provide a tool, not just a bunch of ordered results. Trust, friendliness and humanity were our natural angles for the redesign.

The landing page was the beginning of Qwant differentiation. We emphasized on the trends, a live view of the most popular requests, for each country in the world featuring live events, news and popular hashtags turning our landing page into an instant picture of the world.

Based on the existing design, we worked on a lighter and warmer grid system with a rationalized navigation grouped on a fixed sidebar. A new color style guide was designed to bring warmth, playfulness and a clearer hierarchy, with a specific nuance for each sub-sections.

Giving the search field its own voice was our way to introduce the right tone for our product. We said goodbye to the blank input field and replaced it by a whole sentence, like an invitation for the users, a bigger, bolder and friendlier Lionel Richie-ish call to action, a.k.a the new signature: “What are you looking for ?”.

The new Qwant

Bringing depth to search results

The search result page was the core of the experience. Since the birth of their product, the Qwant team had been envisioning another way to provide results for search requests.

Instead of a simple ordered list, their idea was to bring multiple sources together from regular pages, social media discussions, news feeds or even wikipedia. A birds eye view of a requested topic, updated in real-time, the column view.

We redesigned the column view to enhance readability, clarity and bring a clearer hierarchy. Depending on the topic’s category, the view was able to adapt its layout and provide a detailed result list, combining media and all sources mentioned above. Each single column allowed the user to perform inner search inside it, providing a very precise and custom search tool.

Result page for “Barack Obama” request

We expanded the new design principles to the other pages, standard filtered results for each type of content, web, news, media or social networks. The new color and grid guideline was adapted to each sub pages to provide a subtle and clear signage among the product.

Images results for “Barack Obama”

Last but not least, a new identity

The logo and identity of the product were not part of the initial scope of the project but they felt quickly disconnected with our new direction.

The previous logo (2014)

The idea was mostly to explore the best way to make the identity evolve side by side with the design, sharing same principles. An evolution, not a revolution.

We aimed to bring more clarity and simplicity, something that was missing with the current logo. We also wanted to have a simpler logo, that could work as an icon at small sizes. Something that could be a symbol. We wanted the new logo to summarize the core experience and be flexible enough to adapt the different contexts of use. The approach resulted in a very strict interpretation of a master quote :

“Symbolize and summarize.” — Saul Bass

The logo evolved from its previous shape, a combination of symbols, from the “Q” letter, to a question mark (request) and a magnifier (search). The shape was associated with a correspondent word mark and updated typography, bringing a more humanistic and modern look and feel.

Color was a very significant element of the previous logo version. The origin of the colorful mosaic was the concept of prism, a metaphor illustrating the search process, from a single request (white light) into multiple results (spectral colors).

The color prism, initial visual metaphor of the logo

We focused on maintaining a more literal approach for the color theme. The prism concept was translated into a circular spectral color gradient inside the word mark, part of the product symbol.

Qwant logo (Jan. 2015)

A flexible design language

Our new logo was designed to be used in a very wide range of contexts. Not only being a symbol, we wanted it to be part of the brand voice. Not a single element on a page but a dynamic item that could be adapted to each subject or event.

The first design context was the landing page, where we developed small illustrated doodles that could be related to events or a commemorations, redirecting to the related search result.

Qwant’s home page for Dalaï Lama’s visit in Paris

The new logo was designed to have its own personality, we wanted it to be able to choose or modify its look depending on the content, a specific event, a new partner... The main idea was to project the prism rainbow into a dynamic system. Like a chameleon, the colors and shape of the logo can change depending from were its used.

Success is a journey, not a destination.

The redesign of Qwant was an inspiring journey involving the whole team, questioning their beliefs, their vision and their choices. The new interface and new identity were really well received inside the product community, a significant range of users joining their movement, confirming the new direction.

Audience increased from 8 million users in November 2015, to 21 million users in May 2016, six month later.

Numbers appart, success took various and unexpected shapes for Qwant.

It was joined by German publisher Axel Springer acquiring a 20 percent stake in Qwant.

The European Investment Bank (EIB) decided to support the start-up to the tune of EUR 25 million, turning the french start-up initiative into an European project.

In 2016, Qwant was launched in all French public schools, in order to guarantee a safer use of the Internet for kids.

Qwant announced the signing of an agreement with the Mozilla Foundation, allowing it to be now available in Firefox.

This is an incredible progress, even though is far behind the monthly billion unique visitors registered for their big competitors. Having a seat at the search engines table is already a huge achievement for a 60 people team and I am pretty sure it is only the beginning of their journey.