Search Interface usability


A (brief) history

Interface: a definition


+ modes of information seeking

+ cognitive load


+ usability testing


+ faceted searching

+ displaying results

Challenges for libraries

+ public libraries

+ academic libraries

The future/Conclusion


"There is no best in interface design" (Negroponte 1995, p. 97).

Although, Negroponte may be correct in that there is no such thing as a perfect interface design, we certainly believe that some designs are better than others.milk carton

The International Standards Organization defines usability as "the extent to which a product can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction in a specified context of use" (ISO 9241-11, 1998). This definition of usability forms the spine of the all user-centered design and usability testing.

HCI is the science behind usability in the digital domain and involves understanding the psychology of users, their information seeking behaviour, and applying that understanding to the development of computer systems. Negroponte described the goal of HCI and interface design as replicating a human-to-human conversation. This concept occurs in the research of Amanda Spink with regard to IR systems and search term selection and was disclosed to Christina Wodtke in an interview for Boxes and Arrows:

User-Centered Design: asks designers to understand the needs and capabilities of the likely users" (Hawthorn, 2007, p. 335).


stairsJakob Nielsen: Ten usability heuristics (2001)

Nielsen, a design guru, recommends the following heuristics for the design of websites. Although this is not intended specifically for search engines or IR systems, these basic principles still apply (our applications appear after each colon).



1. Visibility of system status: Users should always know the status of their search
2. Match between system and the real world: taxonomy/search terms should reflect the language of the expected searchers (throat cancer vs. oesophagial neoplasms).
3. User control and freedom: selection of search terms and limitors/search criteria
4. Consistency and standards: the interface and search results should be displayed in a consistent manner.
5. Error prevention: auto-suggest features in search boxes
6. Recognition rather than recall: previous searches should be displayed in the results page, so searchers do not need to remember their search terms, remembering something places a greater cognitive load on a user/searcher than recognizing the same thing -- don't force your users to remember things!
7. Flexibility and efficiency of use
8. Aesthetic and minimalist design:
the aim is to reduce cognitive load
9. Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors: Google's "Did you mean ...?"
10. Help and documentation: FAQs, how to search this site, etc.


Research-Based Web Design & Usability Guidelinesbook cover

A search engine specific set of design heuristics comes from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services which has published a list of guidelines for the creation of government websites and set design industry standards. The following nine points have been derived from the Research-Based Web Design & Usability Guidelines for designing search interfaces:

1. Ensure that the results of user searches provide the precise information being sought, and in a format that matches user's expectations.
2. Design search engines to search the entire site, or clearly communicate which part of the site will be searched.
3. Treat user-entered upper- and lowercase letters as equivalent when entered as search terms.
4. Provide a search option on each page of a content rich Web site.
5. Construct a Web site's search engine to respond to user's terminology.
6. Structure the search engine to accommodate users who enter a small number of words.
7. if more than one type of search option is provided, ensure that users are aware of all the different types of search options and how each is best used.
8. Include specific hints to improve search performance.
9. Provide templates to facilitate the use of search engines (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2009).


AS: Our research shows that the most effective search terms are those submitted by the user, from a user's interaction with another person about their topic, and terms they identify on the screen from retrieved output. Stimulating users to talk with someone or thing (or agent) about their information problem helps generate terms and look at the results for additional terms.

CW: Hey, those sound like classic reference librarian techniques! (Wodtke 2006).


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Search Interface: In Your Face
By Lindsay Tripp and Neil MacDonald
LIBR 557: Information Retrieval Concepts and Practice
University of British Columbia, Vancouver BC
December 4th, 2009