A model for usable search

The following model helps you create user centered search. It describes the four steps users go through when they use search. The model includes practical tips for supporting users in each step.

The model has four steps:

The model for usable search is inspired by and resembles the FLUID model for documentation, which helps you create user centered documentation.

Essentially, the advice on this page can be summarized in three words:

Do like Google

Formulate the problem and convert it into search words

  • Include a site map, subject index or a table of contents so users can see which terms the website uses for various concepts;
  • Recognize important words and phrases used on the website;
  • Recognize synonyms, if users might have different words for a concept.

Run the search

  • Make it easy to locate search on the website — a good location is the upper right corner of each page;
  • Place search in the same location on all pages;
  • Clearly distinguish between simple and advanced search;
  • Make the simple search as easy to use as possible: one input field, one button;
  • Prioritize simple search over advanced search. Simple search may include a link to advanced search;
  • In advanced search, make it highly visible how to return to simple search;
  • Make the search engine error tolerant. For example, provide reasonable results even if the user input contains spelling errors or synonyms not used by the website;
  • Do not distinguish between singular and plural forms of nouns; similarly for verbs;
  • Offer brief help or tips on how the search engine works, especially when a search fails and the user receives an error message;
  • Base tips on sensible, carefully considered examples.

Understand the search result

  • Show the most important search results first;
  • Prioritize great search results for frequently used search words.
    Analyze search logs, that is, lists of the most frequently used search words or phrases. Manually enter each of the top-100 or top-200 search words one by one in the search engine. Check that a great result appears first, second or third in the search result list. If not so, tweak your search engine so it provides top quality results for these search words;
  • Show an excerpt of the context in which the search word was found in the search result list;
  • Prevent the display of duplicate results;
  • Avoid technical expressions in search results.

Refine the search word and search again

  • Display the search word together with the search result so users can easily edit it and do another search