Google Designers Turned Their Inside Jokes Into Easter Eggs

The newest animations in your chat window are the latest in a long line of digital surprises.

Last week, I discovered a little fellow who likes to cheerfully block the very bottom of my Google Hangouts window every time I typed the phrase "hahahaha." It looks like this sometimes:

Other times it pops up in the bottom left (or right) corner of my window. No matter the location, the adorable animation shows up on cue. It's not a glitch: The gumdrop-shaped goober is simply an animation Hangouts designers threw in as an Easter egg in the app's latest update, appearing whenever you type the phrase "hahahaha."

There are other Easter eggs, and there are many of them. The newest ones I've found are the bottom-of-the-window animations triggered by certain phrases (see also: "woot"). The older ones, found by avid chatters in 2013, involve more complicated keystrokes and trigger strange-but-colorful animations, including one with the ponies that look like ones from My Little Pony.

To see all this whimsy in action, open up a Google Hangout window. (Make sure you have the latest version first.) Type and enter any of the following commands: "hahahaha," "lmao," or "happy birthday." Watch as an animation shows up on the bottom. Or, try my favorite from the older pack of Easter eggs: Enter "/ponystream" into your message box, and you'll see ponies gallop across your window, like so:

These sly day-wasters aren't all that new. The very first pack, full of ponies and other oddities like the "shy dino," have been around since last year. Still, and perhaps more important, why these Easter eggs? Why not create animations that are Google-related? Why ponies? Why shy dinos?

They're all inside jokes the design team just felt like adding, Hangouts Lead User Experience Designer Sanjay Mavinkurve tells me. And because of that, the designers tried to keep the animations to themselves in the beginning. "It was meant to amuse each other internally," he says, "but we loved it so much, we rolled it out publicly."

In an email, Mavinkurve summed up how each of the Easter eggs in the original set came to be:

Ponies (/ponies) and Ponystream (/ponystream):

There is a popular meme out there about wanting a pony. Our team was joking about this one night before a launch, and the next thing you know, it was built into our code! And, because one pony is never enough, we even took a survey of team members for their favorite colors, and generated customized ponies for each of them in “/ponystream."

Pitchforks (/pitchforks):

Pitchforks bring a little snark and balance out the sunshine and rainbows from our Ponies.

Bikeshed (/bikeshed):

This is an ironic reference to The colors for “/bikeshed” are selected at random for each person in the chat, so it's very unlikely any two people will ever agree on the color of the bikeshed. Our team is dedicated to moving fast and staying focused on our priorities. So, it became a custom on the team to send “/bikeshed” to each other, meaning we were spending too much time on trivial items and needed to focus on the important stuff.

Shydino (/shydino):

We had Hangouts users mistaking one of our emoji (the house with the tree) for a shy dinosaur hiding behind a house. It seemed a shame to not have such an emoji, so we added the Easter egg.

Konami code:

Every product needs a konami code.

This first set was hard for users to find. How often does someone randomly type "/" followed by "ponies" or "shydino"? To remedy this, the team removed the forward slash and created triggers instead for common phrases like "yay!!" and "hahahaha" in the new pack of animations.

"The original set of Easter eggs were a bit...cryptic," Mavinkurve told me. "We wanted to delight a broader audience by triggering on expressions people actually say."

Adding the new Easter eggs to the already stacked line-up of ponies and shy dinosaurs makes Hangouts another Google product with tricks up its sleeve. After all, the search engine is known for having similar shticks: Googling "askew," "recursion," and sundry other words triggers special effects. But unlike those Easter eggs, the ones in Hangouts should pop up when users will least expect them, yet will be most delighted to see them.

"We hope people find them, but want to make sure they don't trigger too often," Mavinkurve says. "The goal is to make people smile and keep them surprised."