Recently there has been some discussion about the usability of navigators , also known as facets, for search results and about faceted navigation through metadata. It is said that navigation through clustered categories is often unintuitive for the user.
Since the categories are created with every search query and usually are disorderly groupings that consist of only a few words they can be hard to understand. Predefined categories are better that way because they can be created as longer sentences explaining their content. They are also easy to organize into understandable hierachies.
But on the downside, with predefined categories, everything that is indexed in the search engine needs to be provided with metadata for applying the categories to the data. So what to do? Which is the way to satisfied users? Flexible but sometimes unintuitive categories or unflexible categories that are easily understood but more complex to index?
My thought is that it depends one the type of data as well as your users. If you have well defined, structured data that may already be structured into taxonomies it is easy for you to apply the categories to the structure. But if the data is unstructured it takes a lot less work to create and organize the categories for every query. It’ s basically a matter of costs.
If your users are computer literate and used to search engines as well as the domain at hand, the concept of navigators will come easy to them. But if they’re not used to computers it will be harder. Most users are familiar with navigating by clicking, so they could easily learn to click through the predefined categories, navigating their way to the desired search result. As long as they feel they are on the right track, users are also willing to navigate deep into hierarchical structures.
So which is the way to go? My answer is: Know your users as well as your content. That is the way to creating succesful navigation as well as good user experiences.