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Rethinking Search Results from a UX Perspective

Post-secondary education websites have evolved a lot over the past decade. Search results pages have hardly changed. We’re long overdue to envision better ways to help users find what they’re looking for, faster and with fewer frustrations.

By looking at tested examples of user interfaces from ecommerce and other industries, we’ll explore ideas for radically rethinking the search experience on post-secondary websites. We’ll also discuss tips for using research to guide these decisions and avoid copying design patterns that aren’t suited to post-secondary information or user needs.

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Rethinking Search Results from a UX Perspective

  1. 1. Rethinking Search Results from the Users’ Perspective Brian Frank | @brian_frank UX Researcher at #PSEWeb 2018
  2. 2. About Me Full-time UX researcher at since 2015 50% of my time is on post-secondary/higher-ed projects Experience spans 12 PSE institutions, including 5 public website overhauls since 2015 (not including other/previous projects) First PSE experience was in 2010 Other work includes B2B ecommerce overhauls, publishing, gov't, startup, etc 100s of hours of user research and usability testing on 30+ sites and apps
  3. 3. Why Search?
  4. 4. Everyone uses search. Some people prefer to search. Others resort to it at critical moments — often when they’re already frustrated or lost. Navigation will never be perfect. You can spend endless time refining sitemaps and menus but some people will still have trouble finding some things.
  5. 5. Search is usually one of the most prevalent complaints. Many frequent users avoid it completely by doing external searches instead. Site search is stuck in the past.
  6. 6. Why is Search Stuck?
  7. 7. Technology-first approaches. Site search is easy to do adequately (sort of) with CMS defaults and other solutions. Law of triviality. It’s easier to have an opinion about how users start a search than how to improve the results.
  8. 8. 5/5 test participants easily found search on this homepage.
  9. 9. 5/5 test participants easily typed a search query…
  10. 10. 2/5 test participants took more than 1 minute to find a student residence page. Only 1 participant found it quickly.
  11. 11. Design effort and stakeholder input is usually focused here… … but the biggest problems are often here.
  12. 12. Phase One: Understand Users
  13. 13. 1. Review site search data. 2. Map site search user flows. 3. Interview and observe users to test your assumptions.
  14. 14. Review site search data. Review the top 100+ search terms during the past year (at least). Consider segmenting by month, location, device, etc. to see specific needs. Look at which pages/contexts users search from. Look at pageviews per search, refinements, search exits, depth, etc.
  15. 15. Map site search user flows. Categorize search types based on search terms and contexts, e.g. “program discovery,” “student services & support,” “community,” etc. Define user characteristics, goals and needs for each search type. Audit the top searches for each type to identify and prioritize challenges and opportunities for improvement.
  16. 16. Interview and observe users to test assumptions. Interview and test with a cross section of users/personas. Combine open-ended prompts and closed-ended questions to elicit open feedback and test for specific tasks. Ask and watch how they use Google and other sites (if applicable).
  17. 17. Phase Two: Cover the Basics
  18. 18. 1. Clean up and organize your content. 2. Leverage your current search features. 3. Style search results like the rest of the site.
  19. 19. Clean up and organize your content. Remove outdated or redundant content. Fix content structure: titles, headings, metadata, tags, etc.
  20. 20. Leverage your current search features. Prioritize more important and popular types of content. Set up synonyms, spelling variations, etc. for common searches.
  21. 21. Style search results like the rest of the site. Use consistent colours and fonts. Have sufficient white space for keywords to be easily noticed.
  22. 22. Phase Three: Explore Improvements
  23. 23. • Featured Results • Grouped Results • Redirects • Autosuggested Queries • Sublinks • Contextual Advanced Search
  24. 24. Featured Results
  25. 25. Manually promoting results can be a relatively easy way to mitigate irrelevant search results. Elements outside the main results are often ignored.
  26. 26. 0/5 usability test participants noticed the featured results. Everyone focused on the main list of results.
  27. 27. Grouped Results
  28. 28. Grouped results reveal the site’s breadth and depth of content. Users often don't know what the names of facets or scopes mean until they see the actual results. Many users prefer to navigate by “berry picking” directly to lower-level pages rather than drilling down from abstract categories.
  29. 29. Autosuggested Queries
  30. 30. Autosuggestions are great shortcuts and hints to help people avoid errors and find or discover things more efficiently. Many users won’t notice search suggestions — at least not at first. See Site Search Suggestions. Nielsen Norman Group. 2018.
  31. 31. Redirects
  32. 32. Think of site search as navigation by keyword, not a “data dump.” Search results pages are often worse than other pages at their primary job of showing relevant navigation options.
  33. 33. All of the relevant links are on this page… Plus some useful links that weren’t on the first page of search results… … and none of the irrelevant ones. And it’s more organized… And there’s supporting info and messaging… And it looks nicer.
  34. 34. Make key pages easy to scan for relevant keywords. Program and course code queries can redirect as a shortcut for frequent users who memorize or cut-and-paste.
  35. 35. Sublinks in Results
  36. 36. Contextualized Advanced Search
  37. 37. Advanced search helps users target or refine queries. Generic advanced search pages overwhelm most users with too many options.
  38. 38. Tailor advanced search features to specific contexts or types of search. Filtering and sorting options have become standard and expected by users. Explore opportunities to integrate site search with program and course search, contact directories, events listings, etc.
  39. 39. Other Ideas
  40. 40. • Scoped Search • Natural Language Queries
  41. 41. Scoped Search
  42. 42. Scoped search helps users focus, and helps us tailor the experience with special filters, features, etc. Users often don't realize (or quickly forget) that search is scoped and they aren't seeing all possible results. See Scoped Search: Dangerous, but Sometimes Useful. Nielsen Norman Group. 2015.
  43. 43. Natural Language Queries
  44. 44. “Natural language” is not a natural way to use site search. Natural language makes sense when starting with less context, e.g. Google, Siri, or Alexa. The intent of someone searching for “parking" on a college or university website is easier to infer. Most site search queries are very basic. Asking users to compose sentences requires more effort, thinking, and ability. Natural language queries add complications due to variations in phrasing, grammar, etc.
  45. 45. Chat is a better place to integrate natural- language results or suggestions. Unlike site search, users expect to use natural language for chat. Chat signals a user’s preference for natural language for that particular inquiry or task. Chat solutions increasingly incorporate automation and AI.
  46. 46. In closing…
  47. 47. Take a user-driven, not technology-driven approach to improvement. Test changes with users — because small things make big differences.
  48. 48. Thank you. Email Twitter @brian_frank LinkedIn /brnfrnk