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.
Rethinking Search Results
from the Users’
Brian Frank | @brian_frank
UX Researcher at Res.im
Full-time UX researcher at Res.im 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 Res.im 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
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.
Search is usually one of the most prevalent
Many frequent users avoid it completely by
doing external searches instead.
Site search is stuck in the past.
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.
5/5 test participants
easily found search on
5/5 test participants
easily typed a search
2/5 test participants took more than 1
minute to ﬁnd a student residence page.
Only 1 participant found it quickly.
Design effort and stakeholder input is
usually focused here…
… but the biggest problems are
1. Review site search data.
2. Map site search user flows.
3. Interview and observe users to test your
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.
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.
Interview and observe users to test
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).
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
Many users prefer to navigate by “berry
picking” directly to lower-level pages rather
than drilling down from abstract
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.
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.
All of the
links are on
that weren’t on
the ﬁrst page
… and none of
Make key pages easy to scan for relevant
Program and course code queries can
redirect as a shortcut for frequent users
who memorize or cut-and-paste.
Advanced search helps users target or
Generic advanced search pages overwhelm
most users with too many options.
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.
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.
“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,
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.