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Search is the act of looking for a product, service, or information. There are three types of search:

  • I know what I'm looking for and I know how to describe it
  • I know what I'm looking for, but don't know how to describe it
  • I don't know what I'm looking for well enough to even have a shot at describing it

How users approach searching in those three situations differ. Additionally, there are aspects to the user's skills and needs that affect their ability to successfully search:

  • Domain expertise - what do they know about the subject?
  • Search expertise - what do they know about searching on the web? on this specific search engine?
  • Cognitive style - are they global thinkers or analytical thinkers?
  • Goal type - Is the search navigational (trying to find a specific tool on a site), informational (learning about a topic) or transactional (changing their profile)?

Six typical behaviors users employ include:

  • Alternating between search and browse
  • Minimizing the result set by filtering or using more specific terms
  • Surveying quickly (scanning a general number of results)
  • Making immediate judgements (looking at very few results to determine if the search was any good)
  • Agonizing over the query (particularly if they don't know the terminology for what they want to find)
  • Pogosticking (bouncing between the list and the results in rapid succession, quickly sampling each).

Search field design

At the basic level, any time the user needs to search for something, they need an input field and some way to submit the search. The most basic search field is an input field and a submit button. The input field allows the user to write the search query and the submit button send the query to the server for processing.

Many search fields are enabled with autocomplete or word completion, where an application predicts the rest of the word the user is typing. In most cases for search, the interface provides a menu of options below the input field, similar to a combo box. In most chases when the user is searching, they have the option to enter text and then use the submit button or enter key to submit their query without choosing from the menu.

In their article, Best Practices for Search, UX Booth recommends:

  • Don't put search on small websites because it's not necessary.
  • Display the search field prominently.
  • Don't hide the search field behind an icon.
  • Accompany the search field with a magnifying glass icon, and make it the simplest icon you can.
  • Put the search box in the top of the page - either the top left or the top right will do.
  • Provide a search button to trigger the search.
  • Use placeholder text to clarify what users can search for.
  • Make sure the search box appears on every page.
  • Make the search field as big as possible.
  • Use auto-suggest to complete entries where possible (and make sure they're quality).
  • Keep users' queries on the results page so they can quickly reformulate the search.
  • Create a layout appropriate to what the user is searching for the results.
  • Show a progress bar for searches that take a while to load.
  • Make sure that if there are no results, you provide other options or guidance, not a blank page.
  • Provide filter and sort options.

Additional resources