Search Mental Models

Jakob Nielsen writes: “Users now have precise expectations for the behavior of search. Designs that invoke this mental model but work differently are confusing.”

Search is such a prominent part of the Web user experience that users have developed a firm mental model for how it’s supposed to work. Users expect search to have three components:

* A box where they can type words
* A button labeled “search” that they click to run the search
* A list of top results that’s linear, prioritized, and appears on a new page — the search engine results page (SERP)

In user testing, people tell us that they want search on websites and intranets to work like X, where X is their favorite major search engine. Luckily, all three of the major engines (Google, Yahoo, and MSN) work the same: exactly as stated in the list above.

Currently, there’s no single winning label for non-keyword search, but Find and Retrieve seem to work well. For winnowing, you can use labels like “Refine Results.” But don’t use such labels for keyword search — when there’s a box for users to type words, label the action button “Search.”

Finally, advanced search that combines keyword searching with other search forms can be helpful, but it should be a secondary option that’s only displayed when users ask for it.

Users are now forming mental models that they expect to apply across the Web, and even to their intranets. This is good. Existing knowledge of interaction techniques lets users focus on their goals, not the mechanics of operating the interface. All this breaks down, however, if your design conflicts with users’ preconceived mental models. Don’t commit this sin.

Published by

Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.