Time for a Fresh Look at Your Internal Site Search Strategy

October 26, 2017

My colleague Rebecca Grazinni recently wrote about how user expectations and behaviors changed over time along with technological advances. As she eloquently put it: the power of that computer in our pockets has shifted the way we live our lives day-to-day.

What this means for the user experience designer is that the bar has been raised. We must redouble our efforts to make it even easier for users to find their destination and accomplish their goals.

Making sure this happens always begins with effective navigation. We’ve designed countless navigation systems in our work at Crux Collaborative and link menus are generally at the heart of most navigation systems. Links are the fastest and most natural way to navigate.

But providing effective internal site search can also be a key feature in making your site easy to navigate. In this article, we’ll share some thoughts on why now may be the time to take a fresh, strategic look at your internal site search.

Site Search = Afterthought

Internal site search has had a bit of a troubled past. It’s been treated as a strategic afterthought far too often — search is added by the developers toward the end of the dev process, with the bare minimum UX guidance or feedback. The result is site search that does not help users.

Of course, users are quick to notice when features waste their time, rather than help them achieve objectives. You’ve probably seen examples of useless site searches; maybe the results include a never-ending list of cryptically named PDF files or essentially every page on the site. Before long, you’ve lost trust in site search as a feature and you begin to avoid it on all sites.

But some scenarios really beg for search. Users look for the fastest and most predictable way to meet their immediate goals. Often, that has meant users turn to Google to search for site-specific content. With some sites this may actually work just fine. Frankly, I do it all the time. And for a 20-page public site, I don’t have a problem with it.

But if your site has deeper levels of content, includes large sets of data, and/or requires a login (which prevents Google from indexing your content) – you might have an opportunity to dramatically improve your site search experience.

If done well, site search can provide users the fastest way to find things like articles, manuals, documents, medical conditions, products, glossary terms, tasks, vehicle fleets, events, people, transactions, media or other complex data — much faster than hunting through multiple levels of navigation links to find it.

Best Practices for Internal Site Search

To overcome the problems of the past, your in-site search must be ultra-reliable and must deliver a superb experience. This means going far beyond just a generic list of results.

Luckily, plenty of open source and paid options are available to help in this quest. Here are 4 best practices that will help improve the user experience:

1. Polished Design

It may seem obvious, but thoughtful design is crucial. Every interaction must be clear to the user. Be sure your search box is easy to find and intuitive to use. The box should be large enough to handle typical search entries.

Avoid using fonts and colors that are difficult to read or too small and follow accessibility best practices. Provide enough space around each clickable item (including autocomplete terms) to make them easy to scan, which will help users avoid accidental clicks.  We use Google’s recommendation of 48 pixels height and width as a minimum.

Medscape internal search
Above: MedScape’s search interaction is intuitive

2. Auto Complete/Suggest

Over the past few years, search capabilities have changed. It used to be a 2-step process in which the user would first enter and submit a search term, and then afterward they’d view the list of results to click.

Today, search should be a constant feedback loop that lets users pounce on the term as they start typing. The list should update with each change in what is being typed. This can reduce misspellings and lowers the user’s interaction cost. No more waiting to find out if you spelled it wrong because you quickly try and re-try multiple spellings.

Internet giants like Google and Facebook have helped to make this type of interaction very familiar for most users.

In addition to suggesting terms, you may wish to split them into categories, suggest category landing pages, and/or provide links to probable destination pages – allowing users to skip a results page altogether.

Merriam Webster search example

Above: Merriam-Webster search provides simple, categorized autocomplete options

3. Speed

There was a time when a full page refresh was expected for every click. Modern frameworks for building web user interfaces, such as Angular and React, are subtly changing this underlying expectation.

If you’re not sure what I mean, try opening Google Maps in a browser. Each time you click, enter text, or interact in virtually any way, the interface is updated without a full page reload.

We may still talk about “pages” but the reality is that static pages are giving way to interfaces that can constantly and instantly respond. This kind of blazing speed is crucial to highly effective in-site search because it lessens the interaction cost of mistakes or gambles. The user can type and delete and type again. They can click to a result then search again – all literally within milliseconds.

By insisting, investing and focusing on ultra-fast performance, you will make sure your customer’s search experience feels productive and helps them find what they’re seeking quickly.

Google Photos search example
Above: Google Photos search suggestions are blazing fast

4. Data Management + Accuracy

By leveraging today’s technologies and speed, you can take your real-time search results to the next level by investing time and energy into making sure the the content is ready for the users to find it.

Track and study search patterns and then integrate those insights into your search suggestions. Users searching medical conditions may enter “Lou G”, “Gehrig’s Disease”, “ALS”, or “Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis”. You need to make sure they’re able to find the correct results screen regardless of their starting point. Taking time to carefully consider and create relationships between search terms and improving it over time will make a huge difference.

Such mapping of terms can include common spelling/typing errors, synonyms, product/id/plan/code numbers and even cross-linking to content you know the user may be interested in, based on current or previous searches.

The more interconnected your search results are to similar or related content, the more likely you are providing those crucial pathways for your users to achieve their objectives. Whatever you do, make it easy for users to move forward and back, and to start over.

Johnny's Select Seeds search exampleAbove: Johnny’s Select Seeds provides a variety of useful options in auto suggest

We create experiences that help people complete the important tasks in their work and in their lives. Often, that begins with designing simple navigation systems that let users take various paths en route to meeting their objectives.

If you manage large sets of data behind a login, in-site search may be worth a fresh look. Want to make sure your site or application is helping your customer find what they need quickly? Contact us and we would be happy to discuss the possibilities with you.

By Tony Johnson
Senior Front-end Developer

Tony has spent well over a decade building interactive applications. He collaborates in the full life cycle of projects – bringing a unique blend of technical savvy, creativity and strategic thinking to our user experience consulting services.

View Tony's Bio


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