There is hardly an online service without a search function. However, the role of search varies across different online services. It can be the central element in the service’s design, or it can be just an add-on that plays a very minor role. Can we make any generalizations on which approach works where?
Search: just an add-on or the backbone functionality?
There are many ways to design online services, and also many to classify those designs. One way to do the latter is to look at the method, in which the online service’s sections and content are primarily accessed: is it done using a search application, or rather by navigating from page to page using menus, links and buttons?
In real life, both access methods are often used on the same online service. However, it is quite common that one of them tends to take a dominant role – at least in a given section or page.
Is there a way to define, what kinds of sites rely on search and what kinds do not?
Just to see, if any conclusions can be made, I took a look at a variety of customer focused online services of businesses, public institutions and non-profits.
Figure 1. Inside Sport is a prime example of a navigation-based online service.
Navigation-based sites: provider-driven messages or user engagement
When clicking through the maze we call the World Wide Web, I found quite a few online services that relied on a navigation-based structure, some with simple and some with elaborate structures. Such designs were more typical for:
- online media like news services, magazines and journals
- portals of service providers: telecom operators, software producers and so forth
- main web sites of manufacturers
- social media services
- tools for users: currency converters, business collaboration platforms, language checking software, social media management, and so on.
When looking for common features for these services, a key finding was that they fell in two categories. First, there were those services that aimed at affecting the user by pushing messages featured on HTML pages and attachments linked to them. These services provided a set path for the users to follow, and allowed them just limited choice.
Then, there were services that offered access to various direct activities, often tools for different purposes, like business collaboration. These usually had a very simple structure, clearly laid out to help users accomplish their tasks easily. Not always was there much additional messaging.
Search-based sites: user-centric gateways
A search-based structure, on the contrary, was the favored choice for a host of services of certain types:
- online shops, including property selling and renting services
- customer self-service portals of manufacturers
- web search engines like Bing and Google; the kind that actually were among the very first portals in the history of web.
The search window was not so large on the front pages of some of these online services. However, one found oneself soon typing keywords in it, often after having clicked on an ‘Advanced search’ button.
It seems that the more a service’s customer journey (or its end point, at least) is left for the user to choose, the more central is the role search takes in it. Typically, the purpose of such sites in the sample was not so much to push messages directly to the users. Rather, it was to empower the users to find and access something they are already looking for – often in a big repository of content.
Let the use case dictate the design
Of course, both approaches to design described above have their place. Sometimes it is in the interest of both the user and the web service provider to put the user in the driver’s seat. And sometimes, the provider has something important to say or offer, for the benefit of the user.
But crucially, both approaches usually also warrant the use of a good search engine, which can find data both in documents and on HTML pages – one like Documill Discovery.