In part, the design criteria for the search framework are a reaction to the category framework, because search is the fallback option for users when category navigation fails. As we’ve seen, for search to be effective, it must not only work immediately and according to users’ expectations, it must also support the use cases where site navigation simply doesn’t get users to the information they need.
Contrary to many frameworks, however, the design criteria for search are remarkably obvious. The rules are no different than what you should do for almost any site, for any audience.
Offer multiple paths to content
One way to improve search, counterintuitively, is to take the focus away from search by improving navigation throughout the rest of the site. Again, design criteria are the motivators behind a design—rules about what the design is intended to accomplish for users. It is for this reason that “offer multiple paths to content” is a criterion for the search framework. When a site’s content predominantly comprises non–uniquely identified content, the best way for a user to accomplish her goal of finding information is to entirely avoid search and rely instead on pathways through the site’s information architecture.
In practical terms, this means that the very thing that causes users to search in the first place can actually help improve the rest of your site. Remember, people search when the site’s navigation has somehow failed them. By poring over users’ search habits on your site, you can identify ways to tweak the navigation or information architecture to improve their ability to find the content without search. This is not to say you should rely exclusively on site metrics for all your decisions—on the contrary, you should put the site metrics in context by watching users to sort out why they search the way they do—but you can certainly make some changes based on metrics alone. If you can clearly see that lots of people are searching for jeans on your men’s clothing site, it’s likely they are not finding a link to the category in the expected place, alongside other category navigation. If the terms being searched are generic enough to qualify as categories, then primary navigation can be tweaked. If the terms are lower level, such as baby-doll T-shirts, then you can change the navigation within the Women’s Ts category to make these items more findable.
However—and this should go without saying, but it’s a typical enough reaction that it bears mentioning—don’t make changes to your site navigation based on search terms that were entered just a few times. Look for clear and obvious trends. Usually, only the top search terms are candidates for changes to the navigation. When you base site changes on minor actions rather than major trends, you make task completion more difficult for the majority just to enable the edge-cases of the minority. Never sacrifice ease of use for the many based on the actions of the few.
Associate content to user terminology
When organizational words on the site don’t match the user’s trigger words, the user is more likely to search, to identify and try out an alternative method of locating content. However, it would be a nightmare for most sites to try to include every possible trigger word on every page; and in fact, doing so would likely dramatically decrease the site’s usability. So when users do go to search, it’s vital that it work exactly as expected. To this end, it’s important to associate site content with as many different terms—keywords, tags, and so on—as possible so that any search term a user enters will lead to good results. This metadata—information about information, data that describes data—is vital to creating a search system that just works the first time. Every time.
Amazon puts this idea to work by encouraging users to associate products with keywords themselves (Figure 4.11). By allowing users to designate their own keywords for a given product, Amazon not only continually builds its library of associated keywords, it also gives users yet another way to become involved with the site.
Figure 4.11 Taking action increases a user’s commitment to a site, so Amazon puts its users to work while simultaneously building user loyalty.
Make the content easy to identify
Memorable things are findable things.
When searching for a digital camera, it can be quite difficult to remember a name that includes a model number like XJ7220. A camera named the Echo 3, on the other hand, is easier to remember, which then makes it easier to talk about with other people and search for on a site. When content is named using simple terms, it is easier for you to remember it, search for it, and communicate it to others.
You may not have any control over what products are named, but you might influence naming conventions for all sorts of other content on your site. You can create shorter article titles, for example, to make them more memorable. Page titles can be kept short and simple so that users can easily recall them later on. The page title “The Art and Science of Our User Experience Strategy Process” is much less memorable than “Our User Experience Strategy.”
However, it’s important to use the short and long versions of content links at the right times. In a site’s main navigation, short and concise is better. “About Us” is a perfectly appropriate label for global navigation, as it says what the subsequent page is called and what it is likely to contain (information about the organization). Within content, however, and search results pages, it’s generally better to use longer link labels, as they help a user feel confident that the subsequent page will indeed contain the content she expects. For example, the statement “We’ve done several experiments in this area” (with experiments as a link) leaves a sense of ambiguity. Where will the link on experiments lead? Will it be another site? A page listing this organization’s experiments? A page that describes just one of the experiments? The revised statement “We’ve done several experiments in this area, including one in which we tested a cat’s ability to defy gravity” is far more likely to leave the user feeling confident that the link leads to a page about an experiment involving a cat and its attempt to defy gravity.
Again, memorable content is findable content. So, while not every site can emulate Google’s success at just working the first time, every time (though they should most certainly try), most sites can dramatically improve their search systems by putting the framework elements identified in this chapter to work and using search data and usability test results as a guide for improving site navigation.