Findability is a filtering problem. There is a whole whack of stuff on the Web. To find what you want, you have to filter it. So if you can provide your visitors with a more sophisticated filter, such as a faceted navigation or a taxonomy-based browsing experience, they will have more success finding stuff, right?
Not necessarily, no.
It’s easy to get caught up in the functionality of finding mechanisms. Functionally, the key thing you want in a finding aid is discrimination. It should be able to tell the difference between things and allow the user to select one thing and not another with a high degree of accuracy.
A site like autocatch.com provides great discrimination through its used car selection mechanism.
If you are looking for a 2010 Subaru Impreza Hatchback with manual transmission in Ottawa, Ontario, the site’s highly discriminating faceted search mechanism will let you focus right in on the one vehicle that is available for sale that meets those criteria.
There is no ambiguity in those results, and no distracting irrelevant content to wade through. Wouldn’t it make sense to implement the same kind of system to help users browse your content?
Not necessarily, no.
There are a couple of reasons for this, the first of which is one I have discussed before. When users go shopping for a used car, they know that the kind of car they want exists. They don’t know for sure if a car that matches their particular wish list is available for sale in their area, but they know what features they are looking for and they know that cars with those features exist. The objective of their search is clear and concrete in their mind’s eye.
When someone is looking for information, however, they don’t know with the same degree of certainty that a piece of content exists that contains the information they want, and they don’t know what such a piece of content might look like or what it might be called. There are some exceptions to this, such as when the user is looking up a known function in a known function reference, for instance. But by and large, a searcher knows far less about the content that might answer their question than a car buyer knows about the kind of car they are looking for.
What happens on autocatch.com if you enter a fuzzier search? I searched for “car that’s good in winter”.
Here’s the result:
Yup, a $40,000 Porsche would be my first pick as a good winter car. Further down the list there is a $33,000 Mustang GT. (My guess as to why these show up is that up here used spots cars tend to be advertised as “never winter driven” — meaning never exposed to road salt.) By contrast, here’s what you get when you type the same search term into Google.
So, while it is great in theory if your navigation system is highly discriminating and highly specific, it may not work so well unless your readers are equally specific and have a really clear idea of what they are looking for.
But it’s not just that. Part of the problem is that that sophisticated search system just looks complicated. Even if it works really well, that could be a problem. In his blog post The Third User or Exactly Why Apple Keeps Doing Foolish Things, UX guru Bruce Tognazzini argues that Apple does a number of things with its interfaces that make no sense from a UX point of view:
Apple keeps doing things in the Mac OS that leave the user-experience (UX) community scratching its collective head, things like hiding the scroll bars and placing invisible controls inside the content region of windows on computers. Apple’s mobile devices are even worse: It can take users upwards of five seconds to accurately drop the text pointer where they need it, but Apple refuses to add the arrow keys that have belonged on the keyboard from day-one
So how is Apple so successful, and how does it enjoy a reputation for ease of use, if it makes these kinds of UX mistakes. Tognazzini argues that Apple is focusing on a user that most UX people neglect: the buyer.
What do most buyers not want? They don’t want to see all kinds of scary-looking controls surrounding a media player. They don’t want to see a whole bunch of buttons they don’t understand. They don’t want to see scroll bars. They do want to see clean screens with smooth lines. Buyers want to buy Ferraris, not tractors, and that’s exactly what Apple is selling.
Even though useful UI controls are missing from the interface, it looks simper to use to the buyer in the store because there are fewer scary-looking controls. They may be useful to an experienced user, but they are scary to a buyer. Tognazzini draws a diagram illustrating which user’s get the attention of Apple and the UX Community respectively:
For UX Community, we could easily substitute tech comm community, though for tech comm we should probably fade the bar to white at the expert end of the spectrum, like the Apple bar does. Tech Comm tends to be overly focused on novices. Certainly tech comm, often quite adamantly, prefers not to have anything to do with communicating with buyers. There is, in tech comm, something bordering on disdain for marketing and all its works, something which Sarah O’Keefe has been campaigning to change for a while.
But here’s the problem with not wanting to deal with buyers: when it comes to the documentation, the user may be an owner of your product, but they are still only a potential buyer of your content. They have multiple options for finding information, including giving up and not bothering.
Ultimately, the buying decision they make about information sources can make a significant difference to how much they get out of your product, and therefore if they will buy it again or recommend it to others. But they are not a captive audience. They have not bought in to the idea that consulting your content is the best use of their time. You have to sell them on that. You have to treat them as a buyer, not a user. And as a buyer, they probably don’t want to see all kinds of scary-looking controls surrounding a doc set. Something like this, for instance, does not exactly scream “easy to use”:
Combine the scary huge table of content with the fact that I am apparently expected to take a short course just to learn to use the help system, and this is not the information buying experience I was hoping for.
Or how about this:
Now I have something else to learn, and my head is still full of the original problem I was trying to solve. By the time I have figured out how to use this, will I still remember what I was trying to do? The question isn’t whether these interfaces work. It isn’t whether, if they were used properly, they would do an excellent job of narrowing down the content to the thing the user was looking for. The question is, confronted with something like this, that looks so complex and so foreign to the things I know about, am I even going to bother trying to use it? As Jakob Nielsen notes:
In general, we almost never see people use advanced search. And when they do, they typically use it incorrectly — partly because they use it so rarely that they never really learn how it works.
So, the functionality of your elaborate finding aids may be top notch, but will anybody use them? And if they do, will they use them correctly? There are, of course, two finding and navigation aids that everyone knows how to use without having to think about it: basic search and links. We know that people are very search dominant in their behavior. We also know that they are not very good at searching. According to Jared Spool’s research, though, they are much more successful using links.
It follows that if your want your users to actually find things, you should probably be putting more effort into making sure that your content links richly and accurately. All too often, the user enters a site via search, which they don’t use well, and finds themselves at a dead end: a page without any useful links. Good linking, which people both use, and have success with, can change an unsuccessful visit to a successful one.
Before we get too carried away with complex finding aids, therefore, we should stop and think about the user as a buyer. If the finding aid is a perfect match for the user’s expectations — if its facets are the facets that the user already has clearly in mind before they arrive at your site, it may be worth while. As Nielsen notes:
if you have a well-designed search facility, and users are looking for a specific item with a well-defined name, they’ll probably be successful. In our testing of search on e-commerce sites, users found what they wanted in their first search attempt 64% of the time. And their overall success rate with search was 74%, which is pretty good
But if not, users will likely rely on basic search and linking. So what can you do to make them more successful? Two things:
- Create good Every Page is Page One topics that establish their context so the reader knows where they have landed, and that fulfill one purpose for the reader.
- Link those pages richly along lines of subject affinity so that readers can refine their location in your information and easily find ancillary and background information on what they are reading.