Friday, February 01, 2008

Search Behavior Patterns

Designer can't control user behavior ...

"A search engine on an organization’s website or intranet is often built to support an overly narrow model of user behavior, which goes something like this:

* User types in a search
* Search engine gives back matching results
* User reads the results and picks the best one

Simple. Better still, it asks very little of the user interface—only that it provide some way to submit a search, and some list in response.

However, such simple models overlook the fact that humans are complex, convoluted, capricious, mutable, moody, multifaceted beings with broadly differing backgrounds, competencies, and frames of reference. (1) In practice, this can make the requirements for search interfaces quite a bit more complicated.

The good news is that while users vary widely in the ways they search, their behaviors follow a limited number of identifiable patterns. By examining the factors that cause variability in user behavior and considering personas that illustrate those variations, we can identify common search behavior patterns and the interface affordances that support them.
Factors that affect user behavior

Search behavior is the result of interplay among several independent factors the user brings to the search operation, six of which are described below. Designers have no more control over these than they have over the color of the user’s hair.

1. Domain expertise

User behavior has a lot do to with a user’s familiarity with the subject on which he or she is searching. When searching outside a domain of expertise, people will be less certain where to start, use less precise language, and have more difficulty evaluating search results. By contrast, experts in a field generally know what verbiage will work best, and so generally get better results, from which they’re better able to discern the most useful documents. (2)

2. Search experience

Users who have a better understanding of the breadth of a search engine’s capabilities have more ways to go about finding information. If you know how to use Boolean operators, exact strings, filtering controls, and have proven strategies for exploiting search, then you have a much richer toolset at your disposal. But search experience also isn’t an absolute requirement for success. We have seen that users who are short on technical know-how but rich in domain knowledge can often get by. On the other hand, technophiles can have great difficulty finding information in an unfamiliar body of knowledge.

3. Cognitive style

User behavior is also influenced by the way users assimilate new information. Researchers like Nigel Ford and his colleagues have proposed a number of schemas to describe cognitive style, but for the purposes of search it makes sense to think of it as a spectrum ranging from global to analytical thinking.

* Global thinkers first try to build a broad level of understanding across related topics.
* Analytical thinkers dive right into a single topic and research it thoroughly to resolve a specific problem.

Most people lie somewhere between these extremes, sporadically using either cognitive style but tending more often toward one."    (Continued via Boxes and Arrows)    [Usability Resources]

Filtering mechanisms help users narrow down searches that brought back too many results. - Usability, User Interface Design

Filtering mechanisms help users narrow down searches that brought back too many results.

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