Users Don’t Learn To Search Better

by Jared M. Spool

When we watched 30 users trying to search various sites for content they were interested in, we noticed a peculiar phenomenon:

The more times the users searched, the less likely they were to find what they wanted.

The data is quite clear on this: On a single search, users found their content 55% of the time, whereas users who searched twice found their content only 38% of the time. None of the users in our study who searched more than twice ever found their target content.

As we mentioned in the last UIEtips, less than 25% of our users searched more than two times. But those that did persevere did not see positive results.

The #1 cause of people trying to search more than once is getting a “no results” message in response to their query. Most users give up when this happens. However, some try their query a second time.

Here’s what happened in our study:

  • On the first search attempt, 23% of the users got a “no results” message.
  • Of those users who kept going, 44% got a “no results” on the second attempt.
  • If they still persisted, 50% got a “no results” on the third attempt.
  • And if they were really persistent, it didn’t help because 100% got a “no results” on the fourth attempt.

Theoretically, as people use the search engine, they should get better at making it perform. After all, each successive interaction is a learning moment—something that is teaching them the idiosyncrasies of the tool.

But that’s not what we’ve seen. Either users succeed up front, or things go downhill rapidly.

Encouraging users to continue with helpful hints doesn’t actually seem to help. As we mentioned before, many sites provide hints on the “no results” pages that try to encourage users to enter different search terms. Unfortunately, the presence of these hints didn’t reduce the odds that a user would get a “no results” the next time around.

Keep in mind that the way we constructed the study is very telling: We specifically brought the users to sites that had the content they were seeking. The fact that one out of every 5 users got a “no results” message on their first attempt says that there is something fundamentally wrong here.

The key for designers seems to lie in getting users relevant results on the first try. The sites that did that were most likely to succeed.

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is a co-founder of Center Centre and the founder of UIE. In 2016, with Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman, he opened Center Centre, a new design school in Chattanooga, TN to create the next generation of industry-ready UX Designers. They created a revolutionary approach to vocational training, infusing Jared’s decades of UX experience with Leslie’s mastery of experience-based learning methodologies.


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