Design Principles for Enterprise Search – The Philosophy of UX

In May I attended An Event Apart in Boston (AEA). AEA is a 2-day (design) conference for people who working with websites and was created by the father of web design Jeffrey Zeldman and the CSS guru Eric Meyer. The conference has a broad perspective, dealing with everything from how to write CSS3 and HTML5 to content strategy and graphic design. This post is about an AEA topic brought up by Whitney Hess: Create design principles and use them to establish a philosophy for the user experience.

Hess wants to create universal principals for user experience to communicate a shared understanding amongst team members and customers and to create a basis for an objective evaluation. The principles suggested by Hess are listed below along with examples of how these can relate to search and search user interfaces.

Stay out of people’s way

When you do know what people want stay out of their way

Google knows what to do when people visit their search at They get out of the way and make it easy to get things done. The point is not to disturb users with information they do not need, including everything from modal popup windows or to many settings.

Create a hierarchy that matches people’s needs

Give crucial elements the greatest prominence

This means that the most used information should be easy to find and use. A classic example is that on most university webpages – it is almost impossible to find contact details to faculty members or campus address but very easy to find a statement of the school philosophy. But the former is probably what users mostly will try to find.

university website -

Limit distractions

This principle means that you should design for consecutive tasks and limit related information to the information you know would help the user with her current task. Don’t include related information in a search user interface just because you can if the information does not add value.

Provide strong information scent

There should be enough information in search results for users to decide if results are relevant. In an e-commerce site this would be the difference between selling and not selling. A search result will not be perceived as cluttered if the correct data is shown.

Provide signposts and cues

Always make it clear how to start a new search, how to apply filters and what kind of actions can be applied to specific search results.

Provide context

Let the user know that there are different kinds of search result. Display thumbnails for pictures and videos or show msn availability in people search.

Use constraints appropriately

Prevent errors before they happen. Query suggestion is a good way as it helps users correct spelling error before they happen. This saves time and frustration for the user.

Make actions reversible

Make it obvious how to removes filters or reset other settings.

Provide feedback

Interaction is a conversation so let the user know when something happens or when the search interface fetches new search results. Never let the user guess what happens.

Make a good first impression

You only have one time to make a first impression. It is therefore important to spend time designing the first impression of any interface. Always aim to make the experience for new users better. This could mean voluntary tutorials or fun and good-looking welcome messages.

So now what?

Are universal principles enough? Probably not. Every project and company is different and need their own principles to identify with. Hess ended her presentation with tips on how to create company principles to complement the universal principles. Maybe there will be future blog posts about creating your own design principles.

So what are your company’s principles?

Findability on an E-commerce Site

Findability on any e-commerce site is a beast all on its own. What if visitors’ searches return no results? Will they continue to search or did you lose your chance at a sale?

While product findability is a key factor of success in e-commerce, it is predominantly enabled by simple search alone. And while simple search usually doesn’t fulfill complex needs among users, website developers and owners still regard advanced search as just another boring to-do item during development. Owners won’t go so far as to leave it out, because every e-commerce website has some kind of advanced search functionality, but they probably do not believe it brings in much revenue.

Research shows:

  • 50% of online buyers go straight to the search function
  • 34% of visitors leave the site if they can’t find an (available) product
  • Buyers are more likely than Browsers to use search (91%)

What can’t be found, can’t be bought:

  • Search is often mission critical in e-commerce
  • Users don’t know how to spell
  • Users often don’t even know how to describe it

First of all, Findability can accelerate the sales process. And faster sales can increase conversions, because you will not be losing customers who give up trying to find products. Furthermore, fast, precise and successful searches increase your customers’ trust.

On both e-commerce and shopping comparison sites, users can find products in two different ways: searching and browsing. Searching obviously means using the site search whilst browsing involves drilling down through the categories provided by the website. The most common location for a site search on e-commerce sites is at the top of the page, and generally on the right side. Many e-commerce sites have a site search, user login, and shopping cart info all located in the same general area. Keeping the site search in a location that is pretty common will help it to be easier to find for some of your visitors who are accustomed to this trend.

Faceted search should be the de facto standard for an e-commerce website. When a user performs a simple search first, but then on the results page, he or she can narrow the search through a drill-down link (for a single choice) or a check box selection (for multiple non-overlapping choices). The structure of the search results page must also be crystal clear. The results must be ranked in a logical order (i.e. for the user, not for you) by relevance. Users should be able to scan and comprehend the results easily. Queries should be easy to refine and resubmit, and the search results page should show the query itself.

Spell-check is also crucial. Many products have names that are hard to remember or type correctly. Users might think to correct their misspelling when they find poor results, but they will be annoyed at having to do that… or worse, they might think that the website either doesn’t work properly or does not have their product.

Query completion can decrease the problems caused by mistyping or not knowing the proper terminology. Queries usually start with words; so unambiguous character inputting is crucial.

Search analytics, contextual advertisement and behavioral targeting is more than just finding a page or a product. When people search they tell you something about their interests, time, location and what is in demand right now, they say something about search quality by the way they navigate and click in result pages and finally what they do after they found what they were looking for.

A good e-commerce solution uses search technology to:

  • Dynamically tailor a site to suit the visitors’ interests
  • Help the user to find and explore
  • Relate information and promote up- and cross sales
  • Improve visitor satisfaction
  • Increase stickiness
  • Increase sales of related products or accessories
  • Inspire visitors to explore new products/areas
  • Provide-increased understanding of visitor needs/preferences

–> Convert visitors into returning customers!

The ROI of Enterprise Search—Where’s the Beef?

When faced with the large up-front investment of an Enterprise Search installation, executives are asking for proof that the investment will pay up. Whereas it is easy to quantify the value of search on an e-commerce site or as part of the company helpdesk—increased sales, shorter response times—how do you go about verifying that your million-dollar Enterprise Search application has the desired effects on your revenue stream?

Search engines on the Web have changed the landscape of information access. Today, employees are asking for similar search capabilities within the firewall as they are used to having on the Web. Search has become the preferred way of finding information quickly and accurately.

Top executives at large corporations have heard the plea and nowadays see the benefits of efficient Findability. However, it costs to turn the company information overload from a storage problem of the IT department to a valuable asset and business enabler for everybody. So how do you prove the investment worthwhile?

The Effects of Enterprise Search

Before you can prove anything, you need to establish the effects you would like your Enterprise Search solution to have on your organization. Normally, you would want an Enterprise Search solution to:

  •  Enable people to work faster
  •  Enable people to produce better quality
  •  Provide the means for information reuse
  •  Inspire your employees to innovate and invent

These are all effects that a well-designed and maintained Enterprise Search application will help you address. However, the challenge when calculating the return on investment is that you are attempting to have an effect on workflows that are not clearly visible on your revenue stream. There is no easy way to interlink saved or earned dollars to employees being more innovative.

So how do you prove that you are not wasting money?

There are two straightforward ways to address the problem: Studying how users really interact with the Enterprise Search application and asking them how they value it.

User Behavior through Search Logs

By extracting statistics from the logs of your Enterprise Search application, you can monitor how users interact with the tool. There are several statistic measures that can be interesting to look at in order to establish a positive influence on one or more of the targeted effects.

A key performance indicator for calculating if the Enterprise Search application enables people to work faster is to monitor the average ranking of a clicked hit in the result list. If people tend to scroll down the result set before clicking a hit and opening up a document, this implies the application does not provide proper ranking of the results. In other words, users are forced to review the result set, which obviously slows them down.

By monitoring the amount of users that are using the system, by following the number of different documents they open up through search and by observing the complexity of the queries they perform, you can estimate the level of information your users are expecting to find through searching.

If the application is trusted to render relevant, up-to-date results, more users will use it, they will carry out more complex queries and they will open up a wider range of different documents. If your users do not trust the system, however, they will not use it or they will only search for a limited set of simple things such as “news”, “today’s menu” or “accounting office”. If this is the case, you can hardly say your Enterprise Search application has met the requirements posed on it.

Conversely, if the users access a wide set of documents through search and you have a large number of unique users and queries, then this implies your Enterprise Search application is a valued information access tool that promotes information reuse and innovation based on existing corporate knowledge.

User Expectations through Surveys

Another way to collect information for assessing the return of investment of your Enterprise Search initiative is to ask the users what they think. If you ask a representative subset of your intended users how well the Enterprise Search application fits their specific purposes, you will have an estimate of the quality of the application.

There are a lot of other questions you can ask: Does the application help the user to find relevant corporate information? Are the results ranked properly? Does the application help the user to get an overall picture of a topic? Does it enable the user to get new ideas or find new opportunities? Does it help him avoid duplicating work already done elsewhere within the organization?

A Combination of Increased Usage and Perceived Value

As we have seen, the return on investment of an Enterprise Search initiative is often hard to quantify, but the impact such an application has on a set of targeted effects can be measured using search logs and user surveys. The data collected this way provides an estimate of the value of Findability within the firewall of an organization.

Nowadays, hardly anybody questions the marketing value of a good corporate web site or the impact email has on the way we communicate. Such channels and services are self-evident business enablers today. In this respect, the benefits of precise and quick information access within the corporation should be self-evident. The trick is to get the tool just right.