Designing the search experience

Although there have been many books and reports published on web usability the subject of search user interface design has not been given much attention. Marti Hearst’s book Search User Interfaces provides an excellent survey of research into user interface design but few examples are included. If you want examples then Search Patterns, authored by Peter Morville and Jeffery Callender is full of good search interface ideas, and Greg Nudelman provides very pragmatic advice on the subject of mobile e-commerce search. The book by Max Wilson, Search User Interface Design,  also has an academic research approach and despite some good examples is not a book you could give to a web designer.

When I wrote Enterprise Search last year I was aware of that Tony Russell-Rose and Tyler Tate were in the process of writing a book on the search experience and user interface design and decided that there was little point in trying to cover the subject in a 20 page chapter when their book would be published at around the same time. That was a smart move. I have just finished reading Designing the Search Experience, which runs to 300 pages. If any one reading this blog is in the process of writing a book on search user interfaces then I suggest you stop work now because this book sets an extremely high benchmark in terms of insight, advice and presentation. The key achievement of the authors is that they have taken the wealth of research into how people search (which is much more complex than any search vendor seems to understand) and matched it with their experience of designing search interfaces.  The subtitle of the book is the Information Architecure of Discovery, and that is an excellent summary of the scope of the book. It also positions the book as being of relevance to the IA community and not just the search community.

The titles of the chapters are The User, Information Seeking, Context-Based Models for Search, Modes of Search and Discovery, Forumlating the Query, Displaying and Manipulating Results, Faceted Search, Mobile Search, Social Search and Cross-Channel Information Interaction. Each chapter contains very good illustrations of both the concepts put forward by the authors and examples from current web sites, and indeed the design and production of the book are both of the highest quality.  From the titles you may be thinking that this is in fact a book for information retrieval researchers but nothing could be farther from the truth. Reading the book I think you will often have Eureka! moments because you will probably understand why your current search interface is causing users so many problems. It’s not just a case of ‘clever’ design but understanding how the brain processes information and makes decisions on what actions to take next.

The authors bridge the all-too-wide chasm between information retrieval and enterprise search (‘enterprise’ here encompassing web site search) in a way that I find deeply satisfying and very stimulating.  As the authors state in their introduction this book explores the art and science of search. It is a book that demands respectful reading and not just a quick browse looking for interesting design patterns. It does not offer quick fixes but will help you develop a different way of thinking about the search user experience and then taking some strategic decisions on developing high-quality user interfaces that take into account how people think as much as what people do in a web environment.

I cannot recommend this book too highly. I know the effort that Tony and Tyler put in to development, research and writing and we will remain in their debt for many years to come. If you want to meet the authors then come to Enterprise Search Europe 2013, where Tony is giving a workshop and Tyler is delivering a paper. Joe Lamantia is also on the programme along with Kara Pernice from the Nielsen Norman Group. A stellar group of speakers on user interaction.

Martin White