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E.R. Tufte, in his phenomenal book Envisioning Information, states, "Clarity and simplicity are completely opposite of simple-mindedness." This false simple-mindedness is often evident in the design of a search-results page. Even on some of the leading e-commerce sites, this important page is frequently made hard to use by excessive visual clutter or the complete absence of appropriate sorting and filtering controls. This is especially daunting as more and more raw data return as search results, without the appropriate tools to manipulate them.
A well-designed search-results page is well worth the effort, since it is the key to helping your users successfully achieve their goals and enticing them back to your site. The engineering challenge is to provide just the right kind of sophisticated yet easy-to-use sorting and filtering tools that map well to your customers' goals and mental models. In this article, I present some design ideas to start you on your way to creating a more usable search-results page.
According to usability research, while most consumers search occasionally, more then half of all users are "search dominant," meaning they go straight for the search and ignore the rest of the navigation on the site (see Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity). Thus, the search-results page is used by a vast majority of the customers, and the usability of this page is often key to the usability of your entire site. Given this data, it is astonishing how many companies ignore the usability design of this important functionality and are content to let their users muddle through.
Nowhere is this more evident than in e-commerce, as the following tale of Internet shopping illustrates: My wife has a well-concealed passion for cooking, but loves cookbooks about chocolate. For her birthday, I wanted to present her with a well-illustrated tour guide to chocolate cooking nirvana, and I figured this guide should range somewhere between 5 and 0. I knew exactly what I wanted, so I bravely set my browser to Amazon.com and typed "Chocolate Cookbook" in the site's search function. Would you believe that (at the time of this writing) I found 14,597 books?
The first item was listed for .99, which fell outside my desired price range. The next two items had no visible price at all. Navigating to the next search-results page seemed fruitless: at 10 items per page, it would take 1,459 pages to see all 14,597 items. At a brisk browsing pace of 1 minute per page, this browsing process would take just more than 24 hours!
Sorting by "Avg. Customer Review" netted a very highly rated A Tale of Blood and Sweatsocks and a disappointedly chocolate-free Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul (shown in Figure 1):
Figure 1. Sorting chocolate-cookbook search results by Avg. Customer Review. Click on thumbnail to view full-sized image.
It is possible that the search engine mistook the unfortunately named Chicken Soup series for a real cookbook, but a tale about sweat socks seemed completely out of place. At that point, I was completely stuck: Not only was there an excessive number of items in the search results, but most of the items seemed to be either in the wrong category or in the wrong price range. Most importantly, and absolutely critical to enable me, the user, to reach my chocolate shopping goals, there did not seem to be a way to filter the search results in such a way as to narrow them down from 14,597.
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