Circle to Search: Putting user privacy first

An interview with the product team behind the latest way to Search

Mar 18, 2024 7 min read

Mary Minno Ioannidis, Senior Product Manager for Search
Bill Fusz, Director for Trust at Google

The way we search — and where we do so — is evolving quickly, with more novel and nuanced queries than ever before. But we still want to find answers fast, and in more intuitive and safer ways.

Earlier this year, we launched Circle to Search, a new way to search anything on select Android smartphones with a simple gesture — like circling, highlighting, scribbling or tapping — and get the information right where you are without switching apps.

We sat down with Mary Minno Ioannidis, Senior Product Manager for Search, and Bill Fusz, Director for Trust, who are part of the team responsible for launching Circle to Search. They shared how internal and external privacy experts partnered to help the team put trust and safety at the core of Circle to Search.

Why is getting trust and privacy right so important when designing tech products?

Mary: Trust is everything. It is present in every interaction, every connection and every relationship. Part of being a human means trusting the people you talk to and the systems you use throughout the day.

As technology has emerged and we became reliant on it to find information, speak to the people we love, or function in a modern society – trust remains a bedrock of all of this.

Bill: Yeah, and as a tech company you want to build products that people find useful, but what they find most useful are products that deliver on trust.

People are not going to use products that they don't trust. And so I think while we want to keep pushing the boundaries of the experiences people have on their devices and the technology that's delivering these things, we also want to make sure we're backing up these useful experiences with trust.

People's expectations change. And as that happens, we want to make sure our approach to safety and privacy is also evolving and staying ahead of those expectations.

Bill Fusz, Director for Trust at Google

Tell us about the approach you took to trust and privacy when designing Circle to Search.

Bill: When you're pushing the limits to build bold new products, you want to make sure you have good guardrails in place. Across our teams, we've held our privacy principles as a north star for how we make these decisions, and how we respect our users as we're building these innovative products that put humans at the center of building tech.

But we know things in technology change quickly and people's expectations change. And as that happens, we want to make sure that our approach to safety and privacy is also evolving and staying ahead of those expectations.

Mary: Circle to Search is a big step forward in terms of Google's use of AI to bring in a new era of Search. And as we iterated with our product teams and internal privacy colleagues to create a more intuitive search experience, we knew the process should also involve experts from outside our walls who could look at our approach to user privacy in this new technology with fresh eyes.

We did this through a partnership with external privacy experts from academic and non-profit organizations. We involved them early with a series of structured workshops designed to gather product design feedback. This really was a valuable relationship that helped us better weigh trade-offs for an emerging product like Circle to Search.

What I personally found most exciting was the ability to bring additional safety-first perspectives to our launch from the very beginning. This helped us to make Circle to Search more private, more safe, and more secure by design.

Circle to Search can help you quickly identify items in a photo or video.

Can you tell us more about how you found this community of external experts and what their input was?

Bill: We knew there's such a wealth of experience in experts like civil society activists, researchers, academics, and privacy and safety professionals. And we thought this was a great opportunity to leverage that expertise and really bring it into the process early and make sure that those voices were heard.

The experts helped guide safety decisions for Circle to Search, which enabled us to co-develop privacy features alongside the core functionality.

Mary Minno Ioannidis, Senior Product Manager for Search

Mary: We consulted experts in privacy and human-computer interaction – critical areas for a product launch like Circle to Search.

In the workshops, we brought various product mocks with options we were considering. External privacy experts helped validate key decisions for Circle to Search, which enabled us to co-develop privacy features alongside the core functionality.

What was innovative and energizing was bringing in outside expertise early, at the product development stage, while we were still iterating.

Could you explain what you heard and the impact it had on Circle to Search?

Mary: When developing a new feature like Circle to Search, we want to make sure that we’re developing products responsibly. Practically speaking, we do this through a variety of methods. In this case, this included analyzing experts’ feedback and reviewing their recommendations, alongside our own internal priorities and established privacy policies and practices. For Circle to Search, external experts helped us confirm our approach and five key priorities for implementation. The first was around device-level access, building on principles established with Android. This category can become somewhat technical but it essentially means we designed the product so it only uses the data it needs to give fast, accurate information. This is sometimes described as "data minimization".

Two clear actions are required to Circle to Search

Circle to Search only starts a search using the selected part of your screen. So a user first invokes the feature then takes a secondary action of picking the content to search.

Experts also affirmed the importance of easy-to-find controls. While we’ve long committed to making settings and controls simple to use, here we wanted specific feedback on product design choices. We typically leverage user research to understand usability and comprehension, but also wanted to talk to additional privacy experts to understand their point of view. In the end, we made sure that we put the key settings just one click away on the screen.

When you invoke Circle to Search there's a “three dot” menu in the upper right hand corner. From there, users can quickly delete the last 15 minutes of history from their Google account or give feedback on the product. We also know that some users want to go a step deeper in terms of configuring their settings, so you can easily access all Search settings from the list as well.

Bill: I can pick up from there for the last three priorities. Meaningful disclosure practices, simple and intuitive education for the user on the product, so they know what data is being used to power Circle to Search, were really important to the experts and product team.

We also worked closely with experts to corroborate internal best practices from a human rights perspective. As a result of many years developing Lens, we had well-established principles that it made sense for Circle to Search to replicate – namely that search results from Circle to Search are never based on biometrics matching, only exact or similar image matches. For example, Circle to Search for a public figure would return the same picture in different news articles, but Circle to Search a picture of a friend wouldn’t give you other pictures of that friend from the web.

Finally, data practices and transparency was a critical category for us. This included feedback that only the selected area of the screen be used to begin a search, which Mary had already covered, but also telling users that by default Google doesn't save images from the Circle to Search to a user’s search history – which was important to ensure that users retained control over content saved to Google from searches they run.

Are there any plans for future products to involve a community in the design process?

Mary: The privacy workstream was a key pillar of the development of Circle to Search from the very beginning. That allowed us to sense check our privacy, safety, and security models with these privacy experts throughout the process of making the first version of this product. And the expert partnership process is exciting because it enables us to launch products quickly to meet evolving user needs in a way that is safe.

Bill: We know that Search is never done, it’s a continuous process. So we will take the same approach when it comes to this expert consultation.

Our mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible – that's not going to change. But we know that consumer expectations are going to change. And how we proactively exceed them, not just match them, with the right technology and trust is really important.

Mary: We want to continue to partner with experts moving forward. At Google, we care deeply about launching safe products and we are thrilled to partner with external specialists with a shared intention of doing the right thing for our users and the products we launch.