When we are working with clients to design new search interfaces, we always stress the importance of defining who will be using the system, and then trying to meet the specific needs and expectations of these end users.
It’s Not About You
We often have to remind clients that “It’s not about you!” Archivists and librarians in particular often ask us for search pages with lots of options as they personally are used to constructing complex queries. However the trend with most search interfaces is to keep these simple with a single Google style search box.
We suggest that you think about other websites your end users search, whether that be a university or public library catalog, or Amazon or other shopping sites. Nearly all of these now use a discovery style interface that is geared to letting users put words or terms into a search box, and then narrowing their searches down from the search results page through facets or filters.
Like most other search interfaces, we do usually include some Advanced Search options but the website usage statistics we’ve collected for our hosted client sites over the years indicate that most are rarely accessed. Pre-selecting search limiters removes the possibility of serendipitous discovery of unexpected resources, and the expectation now is that the results will be displayed by relevance so that the closest matches appear first. We therefore discourage clients from specifying a traditional title sort, as if the user is looking for a known item and searches on words in the title, it will appear at or near the top of a relevance ranked display.
Use Cases and Personas
One of the ways we suggest you try to relate to your end user needs is through the creation of personas or user profiles. For each of these personas we then suggest you think about factors that might impact their searching behaviour. First and foremost - what are they looking for and why? What will they want to do next when they’ve found something of interest? So for a publicly accessible archives site, you might create personas for the following types of users.
Carol is looking for pictures of her grandparents and the house where they lived
Lucy wants a picture of an old farm implement for a school project
George is compiling a history of a local church.
John works at City Hall & wants to find maps or plans of an area slated for redevelopment.
Kevin is interested in a local railway line that runs through the area.
Daphne is writing her thesis on a local political movement.
Make the process a fun exercise by incorporating graphical representations using images from a stock photo site such as billionphotos.com– search for avatar to find these examples, or contact us to help you. We find images make it easier to visualize how a person might behave, rather than just assigning an abstract name. The usability.govwebsite has an excellent overview article.
Avoid Jargon and Acronyms
You will also need to consider your personas familiarity with the subject area. Again “It’s not about you”, unless you are designing for a very limited audience, jargon and acronyms should be avoided. Most government websites have guidelines on writing in “plain language” to convey information easily and unambiguously. However we still see archival sites that include references to the GMD or to the General Material Designation. Think about walking up to someone in the street and asking them if they understand what this term means!
Spelling is a huge issue. Too many times we’ve looked through search logs and seen searches that result in zero hits as the search terms were spelt incorrectly. Think for example about medical terms and how to cater to the public that might be looking for Lou Gehrig’s disease. Lots of potential to spell this wrong, but worse, you might have indexed relevant items under the medical term of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or the abbreviation ALS or A.L.S.! Many modern search interfaces now feature Did You Mean spell checking, but maybe you also need to seed the indexes with lists of synonyms or common misspellings of proper names found in the collection.
It’s all too easy to make assumptions about your end users abilities and their knowledge of web searching techniques. Let us guide you through the process of designing your new search interface based on our knowledge of best practices. We’ll try to tactfully remind you that “it’s not about you”! Contact us to discuss the possibilities today.