The designer triumvirate of information architects, user experience professionals, and interaction designers have a potent skill set for creating smooth, delightful experiences for users. While those skills are masterfully applied to browse-based navigation, search is far too often an afterthought.
“Afterthought search” leaves just one leg for the experience to stand on, crippling usability. Designers must be concerned with both sides of the coin. If browse has been the pervasive mode of interaction since the GUI was invented in 1984, Big Data is ensuring that search will be the prevailing mode of tomorrow.
“If browse has been the pervasive mode of interaction since the GUI was invented in 1984, Big Data is ensuring that search will be the prevailing mode of tomorrow.”
O designer, where art thou?
Why have designers been reluctant to work with search in the past? I can think of three reasons:
- Small vs. big business. There are many more small businesses than large corporations in the world. Small businesses usually need small websites, and small websites don’t often require search.
- Company politics. Big companies with big data, on the other hand, segregate employees into departments, meaning designers and IT people — the traditional owners of search technology — don’t often cross paths.
- It’s a different world, sort of. Many design patterns are unique to search: autocomplete, pagination, sort controls, related searches, spelling suggestions, the breadbox. This may push first-time search designers out of their comfort zone, though it’s quickly remedied with a bit of experience.
While these reasons may help explain the disconnect between designers and search, they doesn’t excuse it.
The data explosion
Remember the Yahoo! Directory? It was a curated classification of websites which users could browse to discover sites of interest. It wasn’t until 2002 that Yahoo! actually switched from being a directory to a search engine. As you’d expect, Yahoo! realized that in order to cope with an ever-increasing number of websites, browse just wasn’t a viable option; search was a no-brainer.
Data volume has exploded since 2010 from under 100 exabytes to over 1,000 exabytes today, and shows no sign of slowing down. Popular online stores like Amazon, eBay, and iTunes feature millions of items. Wikipedia has over 20 million documents, LinkedIn and Facebook have hundreds of millions of users, and Flickr hosts over 5 billion photos. Search is here for good.
Don’t cry! While search is here to stay, browse still has it’s place. In fact, search and browse are complimentary paradigms. Unfortunately the search page has traditionally been isolated from the rest of the website, forcing users to choose at the outset one path or the other; a false dichotomy. Consider this user journey.
Peter goes to www.amazon.com and navigates to the “Books” section. He types “design” into the search box, and presses return. He then clicks on a filter within the “Format” facet to only show hardcover books. Rather than viewing books across all categories, Peter clicks on the “Art, Architecture & Photography” sub-category.
In this example Peter began with a browse action, performed two search operations, and then ended with another browse action. He didn’t have to choose between search and browse. The future of interacting with information almost certainly lies in the user being able to search and browse in tandem.
“The future of interacting with information almost certainly lies in the user being able to search and browse in tandem.”
Search has been the red-headed stepchild of information architecture for too long. Designers of all shades should wholeheartedly embrace search. Users already have.
We’ve just revamped our blog (moving from Wordpress to Jekyll), but haven’t got around to supporting comments just yet. We’d love to hear your thoughts though. Use the hashtag
#bleepingdesigners when you tweet and we’ll join in on the discussion.