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Usable Search Results – Better Than Jakob Nielsen?

By Michael Heraghty on January 2nd, 2012

Usability guru Jakob Nielsen says the number one usability mistake in web design is bad search. Neilsen focuses on the handling of input.

search engines reduce usability [when] they’re unable to handle typos, plurals, hyphens, and other variants of the query terms.

But there’s another reason why users have learned to distrust on-site search: poorly presented search results. Even Nielsen seems to have a blind spot for search results. For example, search Jakob Nielsen’s site for the phrase ‘wireframes’:

Useit.com website - search for 'wireframes'

Issues with Search Results on UseIt.Com

  • The number of results is confusing. Does ’25 of 920′ mean ‘displaying the first 25 of 920 results’ — my initial, intuitive understanding. Or ’25 matches were found out of 920 documents searched’ — what I now think it means?
  • Results are grouped into different sections, but that makes me work to interpret them. I understand the logic behind this but if feels like system-matching rather than mental-modelling. It sure doesn’t look like Google’s results.
  • The matched terms are not highlighted.
  • In many cases, the search query is not present in either the article title or snippet — which makes the user distrust the relevancy of the results.
  • The snippet is not contextual, i.e. it is not retrieved from a section of the article containing the search query. A related issue is some snippets look too similar, perhaps derived from the same template.
  • The use of italics as default font style for snippets makes the page difficult to read.
  • There is no spacing between individual results, making the results page look cluttered.

Other Changes We Implemented In User Journeys Search

On our own search results page, we have tried to avoid these problems. We have also added the following features, not present in the UseIt site:

  • We numbered our search results. Google doesn’t do this seems a more intuitive design here, when the number of results is typically low.
  • We used pagination, as 10 results seems enough for one page. (Perhaps in a future version we should let the user control how many they see per page.)
  • We added ‘this works’ text in the search box. This gives the experience a sense of fun. It also encourages users to try the search function, and challenges their perception that on-site search doesn’t work

Are there any other ways in which we could improve our search results? Please let us know.

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