As an increasingly important component in desktop and mobile online experiences, search can make or break an online experience. Here are a few tips to help ensure your search functionality provides users with best possible experience.
Search is an increasingly important component in desktop and mobile online experiences, yet too often search is not designed to meet user needs. Many organizations assume their search engine knows best and leave it to its own devices. In reality, search can make or break an online experience, either earning the satisfaction and loyalty of users or sending them elsewhere to get information.
Here are a few practical suggestions to achieve user-friendly search for your sites and apps.
Get to know your users as searchers. It's not enough to understand your users in a general sense—you also need to understand the specifics of why they search, what they search for, and how they think about searching for different types of information.
Search analytics, surveys, and moderated usability sessions involving open-ended tasks and real data help you develop an understanding of your users as searchers and the various usage scenarios for your particular search environment.
Help users understand the types of information available. Associations produce many different kinds of information, and a search that is very general—for example, "pharmaceuticals"—could bring up a magazine article, a press release, or a list of corporate partners. The challenge is to make it clear from your search interface and results what information types are available.
Solutions can include allowing the user to select a search domain, similar to the way one can search within a department on Amazon.com. Search results can identify the source of particular content items—conference proceedings, a journal, a blog, or a certain section of the website, for instance—so the user can understand where the information comes from and choose the most relevant results.
Don't silo your searches or your search strategy. Silos are the enemies of associations and the people who use their websites. Some organizations try to limit the technical challenge of integrated or enterprise search by offering different search tools for different areas of their websites. Scoped searches can be valuable for users, but there should be a clear, simple way to see everything your organization offers on a particular search term. Full-site blended search is therefore an important feature of your search strategy.
Thinking more broadly, include "related links" algorithms in your search strategy. Every page in your site is a potential starting point for search, and every page has a role to play in connecting users with relevant content.
[This article was originally published in the Associations Now print edition, titled "Seek and Find."]
For more tips on optimizing your website's search function, see "8 Tips for Achieving User-Friendly Search" by Jacqui Olkin and Duane Degler, August 17, 2015.