“ Silos are the enemies of associations and the people who use their websites . . . There should be a clear, simple way to see everything your organization offers on a particular search term.”

8 Tips For Achieving User-Friendly Search

By Duane Degler and Jacqui Olkin

Search is an increasingly important component in desktop and mobile online experiences, yet too often search is not designed to meet the needs of users.

Associations have unique challenges that come with serving multiple audiences and delivering a variety of information types through search—for example, balancing the relevance of publications, issue summaries, research papers, membership information, and event information. They must design their search experiences thoughtfully to meet both the needs of users and the aim of the association.

Here, we offer a practical to-do list to achieve user-friendly search for your association’s websites and apps.

Get to Know Your Users as Searchers

To create user-friendly search, it’s not enough to understand users in a general sense. You must also understand why they search, what they search for, and how they think about searching for different types of information.

Search analytics, surveys, and moderated usability sessions involving open-ended tasks and real data help develop an understanding of users as searchers and the various usage scenarios for your particular search environment. When getting user feedback, it’s best to set the scene and let the users take over, doing searches that are meaningful to them, in their own environments, with the support of any secondary sources they typically use. Be sure to talk to them about the desired outcomes of their searches, including what they do with their results. (Do they save searches? Do they save documents or links from their searches? What information do they glean from your content?)

Get to know your users over time. Their needs change with the more they understand what you offer. So, interacting with long-term users provides insights about what is gained from your content, and this shapes how you deliver related content and plan for changes.

Understand Typical Search Scenarios

It is important to know what scenarios will matter to your users and design accordingly. “Targeted searches” are common; this is a search in which the user knows what she wants and needs quick access to it. But there are other common scenarios.

For example, gaining familiarity with your organization (or even your subject domain) is a “survey search,” often carried out by people visiting you for the first time. For many associations, you support experts and researchers who frequently do deeper “exploratory” or “archival” searches. And “routine” searches are important because they can convert into subscriptions to a mailing list or newsletter, increasing your user’s commitment.

Help Users Understand Types of Info Available

Associations produce many different kinds of information, and a search query that is very general—for example, “pharmaceuticals”—could bring up a magazine article, a press release, or a list of corporate partners when the user really wants professional development offerings. Consider that users often start with the general and move to the specific as they interact with your information. The challenge, then, is for associations to make it clear from their search interface and results what information types are available.

Solutions can include allowing the user to select a content focus initially, similar to the way one can search within a department on Amazon.com. Results sets can identify the source of the results—for example conference proceedings, a journal, or a blog—so the user can understand where the information comes from and choose the results most relevant to her goal.

Allow Users to Refine Searches

Users begin each search with a particular goal in mind. Your results page should give them confidence that they are getting closer to finding what they need. This is particularly important when the “answer” may include information from multiple pages or documents.

Clearly labeled filters allow users to zero in on the results that best suit their needs. These refinement tools are best offered on a results page (rather than in “Advanced Search”) to avoid searches that yield no results. Giving users simple, convenient control over the results they see contributes to a positive user experience and a better understanding of what the site—and your association—has to offer.

Make Sure Small and Large Sets of Content Coexist Peacefully

Large amounts of content, like publications or courses, can overwhelm other content such as press releases, announcements, and fact sheets. You should ensure that important content gets noticed in a crowd. Knowing what your audiences may want when they use certain keywords at certain times can help you elevate the ranking of valuable content they need.

For example, if a highway bridge collapse in New York makes the national news, an engineering organization could boost a highly relevant older article discussing a similar highway bridge collapse in Minnesota, because it is timely, relevant, and authoritative. This helps meet user needs until more specific new information is written and published.

Embed Search as Related Content Links

“Related,” or “You Might Also Like” links can be notoriously difficult to deliver well, but using careful search queries to generate these links can help. When crafting your search strategy, include related links algorithms in your planning. Making it easy to find relevant content is the job of every page on your site, not just your search results page.

Don’t Silo Searches or Your Search Strategy

Silos are the enemies of associations and the people who use their websites. Some organizations try to limit the technical challenge of integrated or enterprise search by offering different search tools for different types of content or different search tools in different areas of their websites.

It’s not that scoped searches aren’t valuable for users—we’ve advocated the “search within department” model—but there should also be a clear, simple way to see everything your organization offers on a particular search term.

Optimize Content and Metadata

One of the best things you can do to improve search on your site is make sure your content is clearly written, includes the keywords your users search on (check your search engine query logs), and has quality metadata describing what the content is about. The better the quality of what goes into search, the better the results.

Starting with an audit of your content—even just the most-sought content—can help develop a solid search strategy that includes improvements to content, tuning of the search engine, and search features (for example, scoping, term lists, best bets, filters, search within results) that will meet users’ needs. The search strategy should encompass all your users, their typical search scenarios, and all your content.

While the path toward user-friendly search will differ for every organization, the general goals should be the same: Deliver all your content to all your users in a way that makes sense to them and makes them happy to use your site again and again.


Duane Degler is co-owner of Design for Context. An experienced strategist who leads user research, interaction design, and content management projects for commercial and government clients in the U.S. and internationally, Duane specializes in the design of complex interactive applications and large-scale search, backed by extensive consulting experience in knowledge management and business performance. Email: duane@designforcontext.com

Jacqui Olkin is a user experience architect at Olkin Communications Consulting, where she creates usable web and mobile experiences for associations. With 20 years of experience with associations, Jacqui specializes in—and regularly writes about—balancing business goals and user needs, communicating effectively on the web, web assessments and strategy, redesigns, usability, user research, information architecture, content strategy, and governance. Email: jacqui@olkincommunications.com


Reprinted, with permission, from the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) Associations Now Plus.

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