Plenty of folks, including us, found a few of Apple's changes to Safari in iOS 15 to be familiar, resembling a redesign Google spent years testing for Google Chrome. While that UI, originally called Chrome Home, was ultimately abandoned after years of testing on users, a former Googler and designer intimately involved with the changes recently published a short but fascinating account of the time that pulls aside the curtain on the rise and fall of Chrome's now-defunct bottom navigation bar.
Ex-Googler Chris Lee was once a designer that worked on Chrome. Specifically, he takes credit for changes including the tab groups and Chrome "Home" — no, not that Home, or that other Home — later called Duet and Duplex — no, not that Duplex. Near-continuous name confusion aside, Chrome Home and its related changes were meant to rethink Chrome's interface, not necessarily by entirely changing how it worked, but by better organizing the features that were already there to make it more usable. While the related UI experiments covered a vast (and sometimes seemingly misguided) range, that essentially meant bringing UI elements to the bottom of the screen where they were ostensibly easier to access.
Chrome Home demo via Chris Lee.
Of course, the tense of this discussion and the fact that Chrome doesn't look like this on your phone right now means the test didn't exactly work out. But the history behind it, as illuminated by Lee, offers insight into how even a project's creator can (and should) change their mind in the face of data.
The original goal behind Chrome Home, according to Lee, who takes credit for the original concept and pitch back in 2016, was to create a new gestural system for using Chrome, taking better advantage of the app's growing feature set without hiding things behind a slowly bloating three-dot menu, while also increasing usability in the face of inexorably ballooning smartphone screen sizes. With all that extra space, reaching the top of the screen was more difficult, so why not relocate things further down where they're easier to hit?
The concept proved popular internally and Google made it a priority, with Lee at the helm of a team to refine and test the design, experimenting with tweaks that went further afield than just moving the address bar — many of which were spotted in testing over the years. In that vein, the company decided the only way to properly test it was in live betas, which many of us using Android from 2017-2020 or so likely remember as a point of confusion as Chrome's look and interface seemed to change quickly and randomly.
A gallery of various Chrome UI changes tied to Home, Duplex, and Duet — there were a lot of them.
Several different changes were tested, from simply moving the existing address bar to the bottom of the screen to later breaking out individual features into a "split" bar in Duet — the latter covered a range from a bar loaded with varying numbers of buttons to break out features from the top bar and 3-dot menu, all the way to a "Conditional Tab Strip."
Lee claims the Chrome Home bottom address bar had a "cult following." Though initial responses among our own readership were negative, by the time the company tested moving the address back to the top of the screen, many appreciated the feature and were upset at its loss. However, the change proved less popular among a more general audience with "varying tech literacy." Ultimately, Lee switched from Chrome Home's original creator and one-time team lead to an advocate against it. And as we can all tell from this vantage point, Chrome Home didn't ultimately work out, though Safari on iOS 15 is taking clear design cues from Google, and even Samsung started duplicating some of Google's abandoned changes.
We've all seen and read about both Google's extensive and sometimes frustrating public betas and the company's seeming willingness to kill ideas, features, and products even if they're widely used, but the internal machinations behind that decision-making process are rarely transparent. Lee's memorial to Google Home offers a unique glimpse into the subject, and as Apple starts picking up where Google seemingly stopped, we're left wondering if the changes tested by Google Home/Duet/Duplex could make a return to Chrome someday.