The Insighter

May 2006

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Neo Insight's e-newsletter on Usability topics and techniques.
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Our next workshop

June 15, 2006  Usability challenges of new Web technologies - One day Workshop
Save $100 if you act now - early registration deadline June 9

Upcoming events

June 8 CapCHI talks: "HCI Highlights" including CHI 2006 Conference review and recent HOTLab projects.
Jun 12-16, 2006 UPA 2006: Usability Through Storytelling, Denver, Colorado - Annual conference of the Usability Professionals' Association

10 tips for managing search success

As we come to understand how users search on the Internet, we can improve the way we design on-site search to support their behaviour. Search can be a user's strategy, a last resort, or a point of failure for a Web site. In one site, we found the most frequent "last page visited" was search results.

Google supports a limited set of user behaviours, and gains much of its power from having huge amounts of data on which to carry out statistical analysis. A different approach is needed to design search within a Web site; an approach based on an understanding of what users are looking for and why, and how they develop their search strategy.

Here are 10 tips on helping your users achieve search success on your site.

1. Design for your users' search goals and tasks
The big trend we've seen is that it is no longer enough to rely on a powerful search engine. Web strategists are explicitly managing search on their sites - not leaving it up to software. This is because they recognise that search is a human task, not a database function. They realize that good service means more than just having good algorithms - it means understanding and supporting users' goals and tasks. Sometimes, this demands labour-intensive effort, but often it can be achieved through better design. In either case, helping users find what they need can only improve your site's performance.

2. Index pages that give value as a search result
One page is not like another. Consider which pages will be useful as results for users' searches, and only index those. These might be most of your 'leaf-node' content pages, but might also include some 'hub' pages, from which users can access other pages, with a level of confidence in what they will find there. Remember that users who have searched 'parachute in' to a page, and therefore need to find good navigation on that page that does not rely on them having followed a path. One large Government department we know indexes only about 10% of pages, and also prevents external search engines from indexing most pages, using 'norobot' tags.

3. Ensure users' search terms get results
Users sometimes search with words and phrases which are not those used by Web content authors. It may take a while to get all your authors to write user-friendly content. In the meantime, you should at least understand user terminology.

Scan the terms users type into your search engine, or get them from your web statistics for users arriving at your site from external search engines. Modify your terminology to match your users'. Track what users say to your helpline staff, then make sure that those terms are successful, by ensuring they are on the appropriate target pages, by putting them into the keyword metatags on pages, or by using synonyms in the search engine.

4. Design "target pages" specifically for priority searches
Web site architecture and navigation must be designed with users' goals and needs in mind. But with regard to search, you can take this one step further. Take a good-sized sample of searches carried out on your site. Group them by the kinds of user tasks they represent.

Then walk through that search task as though you were a user. Ensure there is an obvious "target page" for that group of searches. And ensure that that page comes high on the list of results for those searches. Ensure that the search results summary of the target page is well-distinguished from other pages on the search results. Ensure that that page provides navigation to help users continue their journey if they want to.

5. Integrate browsing into search
We see an important trend where what looks like browsing is in part "search behind the scenes", and where search integrates support for browsing.

Allow users to browse the results of a search in more than one way. Use metadata from the results to provide browsing options. For example, provide search results categorised by type of document, by section of the site, by product category or-even better-by the types of user needs, tasks and goals they support. Allow users to browse the results in each category. See Example 1 below (from Futureshop) which uses metadata to create a mini browse hierarchy which users can explore.

Example 1: Navigable mini-browse hierarchy on a set of search results (Futureshop)

6. Augment search results with extended site navigation
Even when searching, users are still interested in useful navigation links. Providing navigation links together with search results can also help users understand the structure of your site. If a user has decided to search on your site, it may be because your standard navigation didn't provide the "scent of information" they were looking for. To allow for this, you might provide more than just standard navigation on a search results page - a more detailed view, closer to a site map. You might also provide links to topics related to the search term, or highlight popular results.

7. No dead ends!
There is rarely no answer to a question. But users often get 'no results' in response to a query on a Web site. There are usually ways to prevent this happening and to ensure that users find the things they're looking for, and the things you need them to find.

Use metadata to provide a 'look-ahead' function (see Example 2). When you provide results, give a count of how many 'hits' there are in each category of results. By clicking on one of those links users are, in effect, carrying out a refined, predefined search. But they know it will be a successful search, and you may even have helped them find better words or phrases.

If there should be 'no results', then this is not the end of a user task, but actually the beginning of a new phase of navigation that is trickier to support, because it's suddenly context-free. You might suggest synonyms for failed search terms that would give positive results and new ideas to the user. Providing some detailed navigation links on the results page might help the user kick-start their information-seeking task again, rather than leave your site.

8. Provide multi-faceted views for search and search results
Most information can be classified in more than one way. Too often, Web sites provide only one classification, and this classification is based on an internal perspective rather than a user perspective. Different people will be searching your site for different reasons. Support these differences by providing multiple ways to search and giving multiple views onto search results, so that users can pick the most appropriate. Base those views on key user needs or tasks.

For example, sites like Symantec, Microsoft, and Adobe allow users to constrain their searches to certain parts of the site. This may not always be a completely task-centric approach, but often allows users to omit large numbers of irrelevant results, and gives them an insight into site structure. Adobe's guided search not only allows users to constrain searches, but provides results in multiple classifications, with 'look-ahead' for each, so that users know how many results are in each category.

Example 2: Adobe's guided search with multiple classifications of results, plus 'look-ahead'

9. Support search-related tasks
Finding search results is not the end of a user's task. It's a means to an end. Bear in mind the user goals that prompted them to search your site, and think about how you can support those tasks. Some frequent user tasks related to search, which are becoming more widely supported on many commercial sites, include:

  • saving results for later
  • filtering out unwanted results
  • comparing a small number of results in detail
  • hiding unwanted details of each result

10. Link your goals to user goals
Successful Web sites have clear goals! Those goals (to sell a product, to implement apolicy, to engage volunteer action, etc) are successful when they relate to specific user tasks. We've found that users do not resent the promotion of a site's interest, as long as it coincides with their interests, and as long as it helps them feel they're hot on the trail of their goal.

Search results are an opportunity for cross-promotion of related products or information and for highlighting popular or important related pages. Don't try to sell hard, but provide useful and related links. Think of Amazon's "People who bought this also bought..." Think connections, relationships, and opportunities.

Save $100 on our June 15 workshop!

The deadline for early registration in our Usability challenges of new Web technologies is June 9. Early registrants save $100. There are even more savings for group bookings. Come join us.

Join the 'Astoria Project' remote usability testing Beta trial

You may know of Techsmith as developers of the Morae usability testing product, for which Neo Insight are Canadian distributors. But Techsmith has also been working on a remote usability testing solution, known as The Astoria Project.

The Astoria Project is a Web-based service for facilitated remote usability testing. This means that test participants will not have to download, install or configure any software. So no problems with firewalls or security configuration, no software security concerns for the participants!

If you are interested in this remote usability testing solution, and can provide feedback on its use plus product improvement ideas, Techsmith would like you to join the Astoria Project Beta trials.

If you would like us to give a demonstration of Morae by Techsmith for your team, just give us a call on (613) 271-3001.

Quote of the month

"If the user can't use it, it doesn't work." - Susan Dray

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