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Oct 17, 2010: Don't advance your search; refine it

As you can see from my last post, I'm a hater—and so are many of you (27 comments already—who says blogging is dead?). One of the pet peeves I bitched about was "advanced search," and one of you just asked me for some specific thoughts on this stinker. Here's what I replied; figured I'd repost it here, while Bloug was on the subject:

Basically, it comes down to this:  "advanced search" is a bucket of miscellaneous features that your search engine provider has no idea where they should go—not surprisingly, as they 1) don't know your site, your content, and your users; and 2) they're not paid to find out and/or tell you where.  So these features—which often have diametrically opposed functions (e.g., narrow versus broaden)—get left in something of a "help ghetto".  And like any other form of help, they're pretty much useless unless contextualized:  when you get zero results, then you want help broadening, and so on.

Sure, there are exceptions. And sure, it doesn't really hurt to have a prominent link to some piece of crap called "Advanced Search". (Whose site doesn't prominently link to some piece of crap at some point? Let he who is without sin cast the first Boolean operator.)

But I just don't see why information architects, and everyone involved with designing search systems—especially vendors, who've generally shirked responsibility—don't do these two things:

  1. Design to refine. Each and every choke point in the search experience affords an opportunity to introduce one of those features currently ghettoed away under "advanced search". Smart designers will take advantage of this opportunity. Not just because it's advantageous, but also because it's the responsible thing to do.
  2. Implement (or demand) site search analytics. (Yes, you knew that one was coming, and yes, having my book done would certainly help.)

Do both of these, and you'll be truly closing the feedback loop with your searchers. The former will help you engage in something of an asynchronous dialogue with searchers after they're done searching, and the latter will enable you to engage in active dialogue with searchers while they search.

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Comment: Giles Colborne (Oct 17, 2010)

Totally agree.

I have to say I also dislike the 'advanced search' link. It says to people 'here's a bunch of stuff you're not qualified to use' which isn't friendly, simple or helpful.

It's a learning curve that goes from zero to 'expert' in one step.

Progressively adding 'refining' options is a far neater, more human solution.

Comment: Edward Vielmetti (Oct 17, 2010)

Lou -

Most search environments I know have some kind of embedded mini-language, such that you can type some code into the search box and have the search engine behave magically. Gmail lets you add a to:me as a shorthand for messages to yourself, as an example.

I see advanced search as a query builder for those searches that use the mini-language. Alas there is rarely a mini-language reference guide that tells you when and where you might want to use magic to make your search different (perhaps better).

The whole notion of advanced search is that access to extra features gives you a better search experience. That's patent nonsense. What does help you make better searches is your better knowledge of what you are searching, and thus your ability to search for things that happen to return exactly what you want to get to.

Comment: Fred Sampson (Oct 17, 2010)

Lou, I'm with you on disliking "advanced" search. It usually isn't really advanced, it's more like simplified: if you knew the query syntax you could type it into the box, but you don't so we make it easy for you. That's advanced? Not. I've had big fights with developers over providing help for it; if it isn't obvious, it probably doesn't belong there anyway.

Comment: D Marie (Oct 17, 2010)

Unrelated, but I just wanted to say that for a usability expert, you use awfully an awfully tiny font size that gets even tinier in your quotes. My sharp 20-something-year-old eyes can't handle it. I realize I can increase using my browser, but when I'm making my initial assessment to decide to read, this tips the scale the other way.

Comment: Craig A. Summerhill (Oct 18, 2010)


I'm not sure I get this one. (Almost commented on your earlier posting when I saw it.) I have to say, I almost always go directly to the "Advanced" search form when the button / link is prominently displayed, and I have more than one such form bookmarked in my browser.

I take the time to do this, mainly, because of the maddening types of results I get back from basic search input forms. Sometimes the results are simply incomprehensible, and I think designers would do well to consider what kind of performance most users are getting back if an information professional can't understand the results.

As Edward pointed out, there is frequently a "shorthand" which can be entered into the basic input field to refine results, but honestly I have to ask, "Why even bother?" The shorthand is generally only known by the most experienced power users... you might as well just direct the user to a more complex advanced search form. It really doesn't take that much longer to enter the data using multiple input tools found on such forms and results tend to be more precise. I find the time spent inputting the necessary data is more than offset by retrieving exactly what I want and not having to wade through screen after screen of crap trying to find that one item. (Yes, Google comes to mind.)

Finally, I would also suggest the need for an advanced search form grows in direct proportion to the quantity of data being indexed. The trouble with embedding a lot of design-savvy intelligence into a search form is that such features tend to diminish in usefulness over time. Frequently, I see novices designing their search tools to maximize results, which is great when the tool is in beta and there are 300 records. But a few years down the road, you've had thousands and thousands of transactions, or users entering new records, all adding to the data repository, and all of the sudden that "pre-built" intelligence starts interfering with precision and recall. As Prof. Rosenberg used to say at Michigan, "Not everyone prefers to drink from a fire hose."

In short, I do not believe it is possible to design a "simple" search box or input form which will serve the needs of all users. Different people have different styles and behaviors when approaching information retrieval, and making assumptions about how such tools SHOULD work for the user is dangerous. You don't need to plop a data dictionary on every user's desk any more than you need to force all user's to use an inane simple search function.

Comment: James Downes (Oct 18, 2010)

I'm in agreement. I always remember a usability test I facilitated for a London Museum some years ago. I asked one of the subjects (a tech savvy, twenty-something male) to perform a task using the advanced search. Within milliseconds of clicking the link, he physically recoiled from the screen, hit the back button, and asked if he could skip this one.

Sadly, the organisation in question didn't take my advice to replace the advanced search with the ability to simply refine results. The usability test wasn't video recorded. Had they seen a video of this chap's reaction, I'm sure they would have reconsidered.

Comment: Andromeda (Oct 18, 2010)

I don't see how there's an opposition here. Yes, providing a self-guiding system which helps people refine their queries even if they didn't know refinement was an option is a good thing. But so is having some sort of advanced search option, for the minority of users who really, passionately want that kind of control from the outset. Take, say, this on how people use library catalogs: https://docs.google.com/viewer?url=http://www.oclc.org/reports/onlinecatalogs/fullreport.pdf Yes, most people start with a simple search if they can, but some types of patrons look for an advanced search early, and for some types of queries it's unusually helpful.

I have also found the advanced search option on Google useful as a learning document -- having constructed the advanced search I get to see how it all looks in the searchbox, which is how I use it thenceforth -- but I expect I am in a very small minority there.

Comment: Peter Morville (Oct 18, 2010)


I agree that most implementations of advanced search are terrible, but as I argue here...


...let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Oh, and I like the word "redesign" :-)

Comment: Chris Farnum (Oct 18, 2010)

Lou - Thanks to both you and Peter for framing this topic a bit more. I certainly agree that advanced search is not for all sites. And I agree it should not be used as a crutch or a dumping ground to put things when faceted navigation, filtering and sorting would work better. I'm just not convinced "advanced search" should be on the banned word list. I think of it more as a problem child than an exile. Maybe we could put it on probation? Where I work, we DO include those other patterns for refining queries. But our customers and their research-oriented users would cry bloody murder if we didn't give them a sophisticated (and usable) advanced search interface too.

Comment: Rürup Rente Vergleich (Oct 30, 2010)

You forgot Andrew Jackson’s Big Block of Cheese with nary a macaroni in sight.

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