SAN MATEO (05/08/2000) - What do most people hate about the Web? They hate searching for information and not finding it. I've conducted several nonscientific usability tests myself, and the majority of my little test rats are unable to perform even the simplest of tasks across multiple sites.
Only given the best-designed sites can we expect users to succeed at the obvious. Folks aren't visiting sites to figure out how they're put together or organized. They are on a quest for information, and the site that easily and quickly serves up the correct information will be the site that they return to.
Customer loyalty is directly related to a site's usability. If users can't find what they are looking for, trust me, they will leave. A good majority of the e-mail messages that we receive about our site relates to its usability and, in particular, to how users go about finding the information they need.
In their quest for information, users turn to one tool before they depart: search. A well-designed search tool should not be the Band-Aid for a poorly designed site overall, but it is one of many systems on a Web site that requires continuous attention and improvement.
Search is a tool that users go to when they don't have the time or desire to browse. The search feature on InfoWorld.com is one of our top three viewed sections.
Before you go about designing your search or reinventing it, be sure you understand how users search your site. A good place to start is processing search logs. But you should also conduct usability tests and watch folks put your search to the test. You'll find that there's no single method for searching because users require different information. Some will want to know a little and others will want to consume all the information you have. All in all, your search should be flexible enough to support the needs of a diverse audience. Take the time to get to know your audience and think about the following.
* Search smarts. Will your audience dig boolean operators? Would natural language syntax be a better fit? The more complicated the search interface, the more likely it should follow behind simpler search pages.
* Help please. Will your audience want help available right on the page? Will your users want detailed help, and will they be willing to go the extra page to get it? Make sure your users understand what is being searched. Any widgets to help build more complex queries will certainly be appreciated.
* Results matter. What sort of results will the audience be most interested in receiving? Do your users want just the golden nugget, or do they want the universe? Be sure to provide options for processing search results, such as the amount displayed and the order. Most of today's search engines provide a relevance algorithm, and it's very useful for displaying the results from text-based searches. In the simplest of language, be sure to explain how the algorithm works.
* Search fails. When your search returns information that the user may deem irrelevant, or fails to return any information at all, make sure you provide an easy mechanism for users to try another search, get help on searching, view a site index, or send comments to the Webmaster.
You should be able to satisfy all users by providing both basic and advanced search features. Take the time to decide on which items users will be most likely to search.
The search feature on InfoWorld.com uses XML tags to find relevant hits. XML is a great solution for precise and accurate searching. Also, meta tags within the HTML is a popular alternative. Finally, open text search is a must for rounding out your search alternatives.
Spend time carefully designing the search interface. Be sure to provide a simple text-based search tool on every page. Don't make your users search for your search function. Provide your search tools above the fold. One obvious place is on the primary navigation system.
Don't force folks go to a search page. Make sure your search goes along with the look and feel on the rest of the site. Simple things such as getting the results page to display in the same font as the rest of your site are often overlooked. Search should be one of the many well-integrated applications on your Web site.
Laura Wonnacott is vice president of InfoWorld.com. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.