16 Aug 2011 by Gene Smith
Three problems with your search-based website design

The City of Calgary launched a new website yesterday, billing it as “the first search-based website in Canada.” Most web managers and user experience professionals have now seen Utah.gov, the search-focused website launched by the Utah state government a few months ago.

Bing anyone? (City of Calgary homepage)

This trend toward a prominent, highly-tuned site search experience is most welcome. Site search has been the dank, dirty basement of many corporate websites; the place where you’d find the mouldy files people thought they’d thrown away around the time of the last redesign.

But the idea of using search as the dominant navigation mode, as the City of Calgary does on its new site, has some problems. Here are my top three:

  • Not everyone searches. One of the most common refrains we hear in usability testing is “I’d just search for that.” And while most people now start looking for information with Google (or for more esoteric questions: Facebook or Twitter), we see different behaviour once they arrive on a site. In test after test, our participants browse and scan for the information they need and typically turn to site search only when they feel lost.In most cases it’s easier for people to recognize a good choice than try to construct an appropriate query term. And by the way, these are the same people who will tell you that they wished the site could be more like Google.
  • You’ve missed an opportunity to communicate the breadth of your offerings. One of the functions of navigation is to tell your visitors what they can do: What services can they find? Who is the website for? Website navigation is as much about orientation–getting the lay of the land–as it is about moving from A to B.By making search the primary entry point for all content, the City of Calgary has made it harder for their users to figure out what they do. (You might say that citizens of Calgary surely know what their municipality does, and for some things I’d agree. But I bet there are lots of interesting and relevant things the city does that its citizens don’t know about and now have no hope of finding.)
  • Search can’t solve your organization problems. The City of Calgary site map–or the site structure list as they call it–looks a lot like an org chart and the content appears to be structurally organized by department.Google, it seems, has become a way to bypass the most difficult conversation organizations have when they design a site: how do we present our information in a way that makes sense to our citizens, customers or stakeholders? These are important conversations–they sharpen an organization’s understanding of its audiences’ needs and they improve service delivery.

There’s no doubt this search-driven design will work well for people who are already in-the-know about the city and its services. These are people for whom navigation of the city’s services is always a matter of known-item searching. But for others–those who don’t know or care so much–an opportunity has been missed here.

I’m going to quote an old blog post of mine that nicely sums up the difference between search and navigation:

Search assumes that you are able to describe what you’re looking for, but that’s not always the case. Browse gives you a set of cues about what’s available and allows you to explore. Search gives you a big empty box to fill in. Browse is learnable, while search is, at best, guessable. Browse is transparent–you can observe how the links are organized. Search is opaque; the algorithms that determine your results are corporate secrets.

The reality is that browse and search are almost always complementary. And [navigation] systems provide valuable cues about the breadth and kind of information, its shape and genre, its credibility and the weltanschauung of the system’s authors.

It’s easy to criticize another company’s work as an outsider; you never hear about the business constraints or budget challenges that make these projects difficult. So I want to be clear: what I’m criticizing here is the idea of an entirely search-driven website. This is a ill-considered idea, in my opinion, especially for a government which should be inclusive and accessible.

(Full disclosure: we’ve never worked with the City of Calgary and we’ve never bid on any work with the City of Calgary. We like Google, but we’ve never worked for them either. We also remember when content management systems were supposed to solve everyone’s content problems. That didn’t happen, did it? Now search will make everything better, but only if it’s Google search. Also: Weren’t we all supposed to delete our websites and switch to Facebook fan pages? Or was that mobile apps? I guess the lesson here is that content, navigation and information architecture are actually hard and can’t be addressed easily with technology.)

Translations of this post: Hebrew

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