The Search for Better Results – Creating a User-centric Search
In the last article in this series, I discussed the importance of understanding and manipulating the inner-workings of the search engine (see Intranet Search Best Practices). It is equally important to understand and optimize the aspect of search that a user sees, the user interface. The user interface is typically composed of three pages within the intranet’s search functionality; banner search bar, advanced search page, results page. Each of these aspects will be discussed in this article and best practices will be explored.
The place most users enter the search term is through the banner search bar. This input field should be present within the banner and accessible from every page within the intranet. Although there are typically few features on this search field compared to that of the advanced search, it does provide an easy access point for users to enter their search term. The best intranet sites do not crowd this tool with lots of options and variations but instead they keep it easy to use and a clean interface. Often this search has a secondary function as offering access to the employee directory. Although this can be done effectively without user frustration, the execution needs to be properly considered to ensure that this is user-centric. The employees’ ultimate success with the search bar comes down to the inner workings of the search and how closely their search string will be matched without the need to enter the advanced search page. The ultimate goal of this tool is to provide the appropriate content quickly to the user.
Advanced Search Page
In the case that the user did not find what they were seeking using the ‘basic’ banner search bar, they may switch to the advanced search page. This page should be well laid out and provide a host of options to the user to isolate the content they are seeking. I find that intranet sites often have trouble finding the balance between usability and functionality in this page. Some intranets create too many options for the user to search by, which could frustrate the user. Other sites encompass too few options which makes this page more akin to banner search bar rather than a comprehensive advanced search tool. It is important to find the balance by creating enough fields that a user can fulfill their search but not too much that they become overwhelmed. It is best to use both analytics (to understand what search fields are currently being used) as well as interviews (to understand what new fields are needed or what is confusing) in order to fine tune an advanced search page and create a more effective tool that puts the user in control of their search.
After executing a search, through either the banner search bar or the advanced search page, the user will end up at the results page. The manner in which results are displayed to the user can make or break the overall search experience. The underpinnings of the search including metadata and hardwiring results will dictate the order of the listings on the results page. However, how the results are displayed and the features available from within this page dictate the user-centricity. We recommend specifying the ‘relevance’ of the search results as well as the title and a summary of the results to be displayed for each listing. The summary should ideally be just a synopsis of the content that will follow if a user clicks on the link. Many intranets use an excerpt from the page instead of an actual summary. This is often due to administrators saving time by relying on automation instead of creating brief summary for content. We believe that automating such a process could result in user frustration, as the displayed ‘automated summary’ may not accurately reflect the page’s content. It is also important to consider the usability of the page itself. The number of links should be limited to 25-50 to minimize scrolling on the page. The font size needs to also be optimized to ensure readability while minimizing the screen’s real estate being used.
In addition to simply viewing search hits on a results page, users often use this page as a launch pad to a new search. This is often a result of the user not seeing the result they are seeking within the first several listings. The intranet needs to allow for this by offering users both the ability to conduct a ‘new search’ as well as to ‘search existing results’. Through this process, a user could conduct a multi-layer search until they isolate the content in question. Another advanced feature is the ability to filter the results live on the results page. For example, a user may be offered the choice of different document types that they can search by (Word, PDF, HTML) which when selected will limit the results only to that document type. The main focus of the results page and the entire search functionality needs to be ensuring that users find the information that they are seeking as quickly as possible.