File Under: UI/UX, Visual Design

You Suck at Search

Image: Screenshot/Webmonkey

Even if you’re pretty good at searching, the majority of your website’s users are probably not. In fact, user experience expert Jakob Nielsen thinks most people are so bad at searching that site-specific search engines would do better to return navigation elements rather than actual search results.

Nielson’s research reveals that while more people reach for the search box to find what they’re after on a site, few of them “know how to use it.” The normally more prosaic Nielson writes:

It would certainly be nice if schools would get better at teaching kids how to search. But I don’t hold out much hope, because most people have the literary skills of an anteater (I was going to say, “a chimpanzee,” but these animals are too smart for my metaphor). Having new and varied vocabulary words spring from their foreheads wasn’t a survival skill for ice age hunters, so most people today can’t think up good queries without help.

Presumably Nielsen means literacy skills, not literary skills. That’s a pretty harsh critique, but if you’ve ever watched a less web-savvy friend or family member search for something you might be able to relate.

So how do you design your site’s search tool to help these “mediocre searchers” as Nielsen calls them?

Nielsen is critical of instant search suggestions, currently a popular way to help people using search tools. He claims that, while sometimes helpful, auto-complete tools can also be limiting because “users often view the drop-down as a mini-SERP and assume that it lists everything the site carries.”

The better way to do search according to Nielsen is to simply return product categories. The example in his report cites Costco, which, when searching for “television” will return all of its TV product categories rather than actual individual televisions. The product category links help users refine their choice and get to the televisions they actually want without having to wade through as many individual results.

It’s important to note that Nielsen is only advocating this sort of redirecting when the search term is “unambiguous and exactly matches the category.” As Nielsen notes, “until people begin to grasp the complexities of search and develop skills accordingly, businesses that take such extra steps to help users find what they need will improve customer success — and the bottom line.”