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August 05, 2014

The unspoken "search user contract"

Search usability is a major difference between search that works and search that sucks. 

I recently had lunch with my longtime friend and associate Avi Rappoport from Search Tools Consulting. We had a great time exchanging stories about some of the search problems our clients have. She mentioned one customer who she was sharing best practices when laying out a result list. That brought to mind what I've called the 'search user contract', which users tacitly expect when they use your search on any site, internal or external.

If you are responsible for an instance of search running inside a firewall, even if it's outward facing, you have a problem your predecessors of 15 to 20 years ago* didn't have. Back then, most users didn't have experience with search except the one you provided - so they didn't have expectations of what it could be like.

Fast forward to the present. In addition to your intranet search, virtually everyone in your organization knows, uses, and often loves Amazon, Facebook, Google, Apple, eBay, and others. They know what really great search looks like. They expect you to suggest searches (or even products) on the fly! Search today knows misspelled words and what other products you might like. And as we start to see more machine learning in the enterprise space, it will get even harder.

But most importantly, almost all of the above sites follow the same unspoken user contract:

  • On the result list, the search box goes at the top, either across a wide swath of the browser window or in a smaller box on the left-hand side, near the top.
  • There is no more than one search box on the results page.
  • Search results, numbered or not, show a page title or product name and description and a meaningful description of the product or summary of the document. Sometimes the summary is just a snippet.
  • Words that cause the document to be returned are sometimes bolded in the summary.
  • Suggestions for the words and phrases you type show up just below the search box (or up in the URL field)
  • Facets, when available, go along the left-hand side and/or across the top, just under the search box. Occasionally they can be on the right of the result list.
  • Whether facets are displayed on the left or right of the screen, the numbers next to each facet indicate how many results will display when that facet is clicked.
  • Best bets and boosted or promoted results show up at the top of the result list and are generally recognizable as recommended or featured results.
  • Advertisements or special announcements appear on the right side of the result list.
  • Links to the 'next’ or ‘previous' results page appear at the bottom or less often at the top of the result list.
  • Generally, when there is very long result list, there may be a limited number of results per page with a 'Next" and "Previous" links. 

Now it's time to look your web sites - public facing as well as behind your firewall. Things we often see on internal or corporate sites include:

  • Spelling suggestions in small, dark font very close to the site background color, at the left edge of the content, just above facets. Users don't expect to look there for suggestions, and even if they do look, make the color stand out so users see it**. Don't make the user think!
  • An extra search form on the page; one at the top as 'part of our standard header block'; and one right above the result list to enable drill down. The results you see will differ depending on which field to type in. [The visitor is confused: which search button should be pressed to do a 'drill down' search. Again, don't make the user think]
  • Tabs for drilling into different content areas seem to be facets, but some of the tabs ('News") have no results. [Facets should only display if, by clicking on a facet, the user can see more content]
  • As I said at the top, we’ve found poor search user experience is a major reason employees and site visitors report that ‘search sucks’. One of the standard engagements we do is a Search Audit, which includes search usability in addition to a review of user requirement and expectations.  




*Yes, Virginia, there was enterprise search 20 or more years ago. Virtually none of those names still exist, but their technology is still touching you every day. Fulcrum, Verity, Excalibur and others were solving problems for corporations and government agencies; and of course Yahoo was founded in 1994.

**True story, with names omitted to protect the innocent. On a site where I was asked to deliver a search quality audit, ‘spelling suggestions’ was a top requested feature. They actually had spell suggestions, in grey letters in a dark black field with a dark green background, far to the left of the browser window. No one noticed them. You know you are; you’re welcome!



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