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Browse vs. Search in Application Navigation

by Hagan Rivers
on February 22, 2010

This article was originally published on Two Rivers blog on January 18, 2010.

Back in January, I attended a UIE Virtual Seminar called Leveraging Search
& Discovery Patterns for Great Online Experiences, with Peter
Morville & Mark Burrell. During his talk, Peter mentioned that
navigation on web sites has swung back and forth over time between
Browse based navigation and Search based navigation. So, for
example, ye olden days, if you wanted to buy something at Staples,
you were encouraged to browse the site and find what you wanted to
buy. Later, search boxes began to pop up all over sites and visitors
were encouraged to search more than browse. These days, Peter said,
navigation is more of a mix between Search and Browse. I’m still
trying to decide if I agree with this, but it got me thinking about
related topics near and dear to my heart…

I spend a lot of time designing fairly complicated web applications.
Many of these are enterprise level applications – not usually the
kind of applications that are visible to the public. These
applications are massive data entry, data reporting, and data
manipulation applications. And they often have hundreds or even
thousands of screens. As you can imagine, we spend a lot of time
designing the navigation systems for these applications.

Nearly all of these navigation systems are Browse based. That is, if
you want to find the screen for “Convert Prospect to Customer” you
go to the menubar (if it’s a desktop application) or to the tabs,
menus, tabbed menus, left side navigation, etc. (if it’s a web based
application). You might look for a Level 1 item called “People”,
then a Level 2 item called “Prospects” and then a Level 3 item
called “Convert Prospect to Customer”. In this example you are
browsing through a list of hundreds of screens that have been
grouped together in different ways to find the screen you need.
(NOTE: This is different from browsing a list of products for sale,
or customers at a company – those are data. We’ve seen lots of
examples of Searching and Browsing for data navigation. I am
interested in application navigation.)

After I heard Peter talk I asked myself: IS there an example of
Searching in application navigation? And I remembered: Apple uses it
on the Help menu of every application on their desktop platform.

Apple help screen

In this example, I’ve opened the Help menu in Safari and typed
“bookm”. The first group of items I see is Menu Items that contain
that text. Then there’s a list of Help Topics on the same. If I move
the mouse down to highlight “Export Bookmarks,” then it actually
shows me where the menu item can be found by opening the menu,
highlighting the command, and putting a little moving arrow next to

Apple help screen navigation

I actually use this a lot in more complicated applications and it
works really well IF I know the name of the command I’m looking for.
If I had searched for “Favorites,” I wouldn’t have seen anything.
Similarly, if I had misspelled it as “Bokmarks” I would have been
out of luck. There’s no stemming, synonyms, or anything fancy about
this search – if you want something beyond what’s actually in the
menu, you’re out of luck (actually, that’s where the Help Topics
pick up – they catch a lot of those items in there).

Then I remembered that a year or two ago I was trying to find
Amazon’s return policy. I went to their search box and typed
“Returns”. At this point I wasn’t trying to navigate their data (all
the stuff that’s for sale), but rather their applications (find me
screens about returns). The search results were, as you might
expect, entirely focused on data:

Amazon return page

I can see by the “Related Searches” that I’m not the only person
doing this. I see “return policy” “returns and refunds”, and
“returns center” are all Related Searches. Looking at that again,
now, I see that they have a little link that says “Need to Return an
Item”. So they have application navigation searching too (it’s a
little to subtle for me).

When I gave my own UIE Virtual Seminar last year on Navigation, I
got a question from one of the attendees. He said that it was a
requirement at his company that the user be able to get to any
screen in the product (and there were 1,000+) with no more than 2
clicks. Let me say that I think this is a pretty bogus requirement
and probably has no basis whatsoever in actual usability of the
product… But that aside, I enjoyed the challenge of thinking about
how I’d do it. At the time, I was imagining a massive Site Map of
the application, but now I think that perhaps another way to satisfy
that requirement would be to implement the kind of searching that
Apple has.

Share Your Thoughts with Us

Are you building large applications where users need help finding commands? What techniques have you tried? We’d love to hear your experiences at the UIE Brain Sparks Blog.