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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. If you want a free one-hour usability consultation, let me know.

I recently had lunch with my long time friend and associate Avi Rappoport from Search Technologies. We had a great time exchanging stories about some of the search problems our clients have. She mentioned one customer who she was explaining what best practices to follow 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 all of your sites, internally and externally.

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 2014. 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.

But most importantly, almost all of these 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 more than one search box on the results page.
  • Search results, numbered or not, show a page title and a meaningful 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.
  • When facets are displayed own the left or right side of the screen, the numbers next to each facet indicate how many results show when you click that facet.
  • Best bets, boosted results, or promoted results show up at the top of the result list.
  • 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 and possibly at the top of the results.

Now it's time to look your web sites - public facing as well as behind your firewall. Things we often see 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 different 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.  If you want a free consult on your usability, let me know.

 

/s/Miles

 

*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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