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People Search Once, Maybe Twice

by Jared M. Spool

Lately, we’ve been focused on the effectiveness of Search. When looking for content, users often end up using the search engine. In a recent study, we observed that users only found their target content 34% of the time with Search. (This is compared to 54% of the time with categories.) We wanted to know why.

It turns out that one reason that users don’t succeed is that they really don’t try to. In looking at the search patterns of 30 users shopping on e-commerce sites, we focused on those search attempts where Search failed to help the user find a result.

What was interesting was that 47% of the users who failed only tried the search engine a single time. Another 30% tried twice. Less than 25% tried more than twice to get the search engine to produce a successful result.

Now, the designers of many of the sites we tested went to great lengths to get users to continue searching. They put in encouraging search tips that said “Try a new search using different terms.”

However, we did not see any evidence that these tips encouraged any user to search again. They pretty much assumed that the first (maybe second) try was the best they were going to get.

For example, Bed Bath and Beyond’s site encouraged a user who was searching for curtains to “use a generic term, like ‘pans’ or ‘coffee’ to broaden [his] search and increase the number of items found.” What is a generic term for curtains?

These results indicate that designers get one, possibly two chances to help users find their content with Search. If most of the users don’t find what they want in the first try, it doesn’t seem likely they will ever find it.

By the way, these results aren’t unique to e-commerce sites. For years, we’ve been seeing these results on intranets, corporate and institutional information sites, and any other type of site with a search capability. It’s just nice to have the concrete data from our e-commerce study to prove what we’ve long suspected.

More and more, our ongoing research is telling us that Search has to be perfect. Users expect it to “just work” the first time, every time.

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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