Another day, another project, another set of IA heuristics. A client asked me to kick the tires of their search system, so I decided to expand on the search aspects of the information architecture heuristics that we came up with a couple weeks back.
This time, I tried to align and categorize these guidelines with some common steps users take when searching a site. This semi-sequence goes like this:
- Locating search: Where is it?
- Scoping search: What will be searched?
- Query entry: How can I search it?
- Retrieval results: What did I find?
- Query refinement: How can I search some more?
- Interaction with other IA components: Can I switch to browsing when search isn’t doing the trick?
- Finishing search: What can I do now that I’ve done searching?
It might go without saying that these search heuristics are really geared to semi-structured text, not data; looking for ideas and concepts is a different undertaking than hunting for facts and figures (more on why they’re different). Although there is definitely overlap, I’d love to see some references to data retrieval heuristics; if you know of any, or want to create your own set, please link to it in a comment below.
OK, without further ado…
- Is the search interface located where you’d expect it to be? (Top of the page, and/or with other site-wide navigation options.)
- Is the search interface always in that location? (It’s always available, and always in the same place.)
- Does the search interface behave consistently?
- Does it communicate what content is being searched?
- Does it search what it should? (Users often assume that search covers all of an organization’s content.)
- Does it support search zones when appropriate? (Users may want the ability to search a specialized subset of content, such as products or a staff directory.)
- Does the interface make it easy to select search zone options? (Long pull-down menus and overwhelming arrays of checkboxes are both quite common.)
- Is contextual help with search zones available?
- Is it obvious where in the search interface to enter a query? (Multiple search boxes can be confusing.)
- Is it easy to enter a query? (Users can simply enter terms; more complex queries are addressed by showing examples or by allowing users to enter complex queries in syntaxes that may be familiar to them.)
- Is the search box long enough to handle common query lengths? (Search log analysis can tell you how long most queries are.)
- Are query builders used effectively (For example, spell-checking, stemming, concept searching, and thesaural searching; good choice of which builders are hidden, visible.)
- Are syntaxes available that are appropriate for this site’s users? (Certain groups of users may prefer to use wildcards, Boolean operators, proximity operators, etc.)
- Are stopwords–semantically poor search terms (e.g., “the,” “a,” “her”)–automatically removed from queries?
- Is it obvious how to submit a query for processing? (The “search” or “submit” button is easy to find and is labeled clearly.)
- Is contextual help with query entry available?
- Is it clear what the query just entered was? (Most search engines can repeat the original query.)
- Is it clear what was searched? (Especially important if your site employs search zones.)
- Is it clear how many results were retrieved?
- Can the number of results per page be configured by the user?
- If search zones or federated search is employed, is it clear which zones results came from?
- Are useful results available at the top of the list? (Wouldn’t that be nice? Hard to test though.)
- Do the most common queries produce useful results? (You can tell common queries from search log analysis; Best Bets are a great way to ensure useful results for those common queries.)
- Are useful components displayed per result that help users select a relevant result? (These should help users understand enough about a result to distinguish it from others; known-item searches may benefit from displaying different and fewer components than open-ended searches.)
- Are results listed in a useful way? (Sorting options might be quite helpful; listing each result’s relevance score might be confusing.)
- Are the results grouped in a useful way? (Usually results aren’t grouped at all, but clustered results are becoming more and more common.)
- Are categories for browsing displayed? (Yahoo is a great example of this practice.)
- Are duplicate results removed? (Especially an issue with federated search.)
- Is one result shown per document? (Often a document has been broken into separate files for display purposes; this floods result lists with duplicate results.)
- Is contextual help available to help users understand how their results were determined?
- Is there a more powerful search interface available to help users refine their searches? (Often known as “Advanced Search,” but my plea: use “Refine Search” or “Revise Search”.)
- Does this interface display the original search and make it easy to edit?
- If a user chooses to narrow search results, are there easy and logical ways to do that? (The logical way to narrow may mean re-executing the query against only certain types of documents–“just technical specs please”), or searching within the current group of results; if so, is this easy to do?)
- If a user chooses to expand search results, are there easy and logical ways to do that?
- Is contextual help available to help users understand how to refine their query?
Interaction with Other IA Components
- Is a search interface available when and where other IA components fail? (For example, allow users switch to search when they’re about to give up on browsing.)
- Does the search system take advantage of document tagging (i.e., metadata) to improve the relevance of results?
- Does the search system take advantage of document tagging to improve the display of results? (Metadata can be used to display clustered results.)
- Can the user easily leave search and start browsing for relevant content?
- Can a group of results be saved? (A group might be all of the results retrieved, or a subset that the user has selected.)
- Can a group of results be emailed?
- Can a query be saved for future use?
- Can a saved query be designed to be executed on a regular basis? (This is useful for keeping up with dynamic content, like news.)
- Is contextual help available to help users understand what they can do with the results they’ve retrieved?
Naturally, I’d love your comments/additions/deletions/etc.; I’m sure I’ve left out some obvious ones. Would you use a different set of categories than the sequential ones I’ve used here?
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