Do you suffer from IDF on a regular basis? IDF (Information Discovery Failure) usually occurs when the website or intranet information architecture fails to find the information required and you then have no option but to use the search application. You know before you start out that this is not going to be a good user experience.
Good practice in web page design is now well established but somehow the designers forgot about the usability of the search application. Your first challenge is to find the search box.
Is it floating at the very top right of the page rather like a polar bear in the snow? Is it given a prominent placement within the web page on the right hand side, in the middle or on the left? These are just examples from four major UK universities.
It may come as some surprise to find that there has been a significant amount of research carried out into search user interface design. On the bookshelf of any web designer should be the books by Marti Hearst (and also spend an hour in her company), Peter Morville, Max Wilson, and Tony Russell-Rose and Tyler Tate.
Tony and Tyler’s book has only just been published but a glance at Tony’s five-part blog series on search design will ensure you place an order sooner rather than later.
And Now Comes Big Data!
There is a lot of talk about big data and the way it is going to transform business performance, but there seems to be little recognition of the importance of the search interface in providing usable information.
Take a look at a blog posting (more of an article in fact) by Jeffrey Heer and Ben Shneiderman in which they set out a taxonomy of visualization tools. It really does not matter what database schemas are going on underneath the bonnet, or how many data scientists you hire -- if the user cannot conduct a dialogue with the application through a highly usable user interface you might as well burn the investment money for all the good it will do for your organization.
Search in Practice
I love the quote on Tony and Tyler’s web page:
Search is not just a box and ten blue links. Search is a journey: an exploration where what we encounter along the way changes what we seek. But in order to guide people along this journey, we must understand both the art and science of search.”
That is certainly the case, but seeing search in action (even if frozen in time) can also be very educational.