Thursday, July 10, 2008

Producing Great Search Results: Harder than It Looks - Part 1

When creating a search results page, it's unfortunately too easy to produce an ineffective design. We know this because, in the course of our research, we've studied hundreds of search results pages. Many of the pages we've studied hurt the user's experience purely because of their design.

A slew of problems occur when users encounter an ineffective search results page: Users can't identify what is relevant to their search. Many of the links are irrelevant to them. They find it hard to tell the differences between the various results, making the choice difficult. These problems force users to click into each result, often ending with them abandoning the search altogether.

The good news is we've seen many effective search results pages. This means there's hope. It also means we can start to look for patterns that separate the effective designs from their less effective counterparts.
Good Design Doesn't Just Happen

In our research, every time we found a site where the search results were doing what they should, we also found a team that had worked really hard to make it that way.

Those teams all have something in common. They've experimented thoroughly, trying out dozens of designs and repeatedly watching users. They've frequently scoured their search log data, studying the terms users employ and comparing them to the results the site generated.

They've ended up with great search result pages, but it has taken months (and in some cases, years) of constant studying to get to this point. There is no way, as far as we know, that you can produce a great search results page without spending the time and effort to build it.
Understand the Tasks

We know from watching users that, on most sites, they use Search after they've scanned the page for their trigger words. Trigger words are the words that will 'trigger' them into clicking on a link.

If they can't find their trigger words, only then do they turn to the search box. And, what do they type? Their trigger words. Once they start searching, everyone has a similar expectation: a search results page that will move them forward in achieving their goal.

When we talk to designers about how they approach the search results page, they tell us they want to give their users a list of great choices from which they'll choose. This approach focuses these designers on creating a showcase of choices. The showcase leads developers to think choices are a good thing."    (Continued via UIE, Jared Spool)    [Usability Resources]

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