This example offers a striking case of confused mental mo
dels. It also highlights a big problem with search today: it doesn't facilit
ate any conceptual knowledge because it relies on quick in=E2=80=93out dips i
Our recent re
search yielded only a single positive case study. In it, our test participan
t was trying to discover whether a friend had a cold or influenza given vari
ous symptoms (such as a sore throat).
At first, the user s
earched for symptoms, describing them in various ways. These simple query re
formulations don't count as a strategy change because they were essentially v
ariants on a single approach. (Without watching hours of video, I can't say e
xactly how many users in our study changed the phrasing of their general que
ries, but it was fairly common =E2=80=94 about 10=E2=80=9320% of the time.)<
Searching for symptoms was a sing
ularly unfruitful approach. Our user was swamped with a progression of quack
sites describing various superstitions and homemade remedies. Most of these
were quite well-meaning discussion groups and patient support sites, but th
e content definitely didn't represent current medical science or trustworthy
It's sad to think of the
vast number of patients who get misleading medical guidance from the Intern
et because the main search engines currently prioritize popular sites instea
d of useful ones.
After a while, t
he user realized he was getting nowhere by searching for symptoms. He thus r
eversed his research strategy and started searching for the diseases, hoping
to identify and differentiate symptoms between the two. This was much more s
uccessful; he found several reputable medical sites with decent symptom desc
Advanced Search: Not Us
Another test participant was a
lawyer who was preparing a presentation about the implications of a controv
ersial court decision that had been handed down a few months prior to the st
udy session. His goal was to find out what other experts had said about the d
Searching for various keywords that described th
e case, the lawyer easily found many sites with pertinent information, inclu
ding news media coverage, blog discussions, and whitepapers from other law f
irms. However, almost all of these were written when the ruling came out and
contained no analysis of the decision's long-term repercussions. They basic
ally stated the decision and why it was good and/or bad.
Although most users never go beyond the first search
engine results page (SERP), our poor user waded through many pages of SERP l
istings, demonstrating a valiant desire to find newer coverage.
Considering that his main criterion was recenc
y, our user could have chosen a much easier approach: using an advanced sear
ch to filter the results by date. However, he never did so. (Remember, this w
as a lawyer =E2=80=94 a highly educated person who regularly manages large a
mounts of information. Average users would have been in an even worse situat
In general, we almost never s
ee people use advanced search. And when they do, they typically use it wrong
=E2=80=94 partly because they use it so rarely that they never really learn
how it works.
The lessons are cl
Don't assume that advanced s
earch will help your website; you might build such features, but people will
use them only in exceptional cases.
Spend the vast major
ity of your resources on improving regular search (simple search).
One-Track Research Strategy: An Example
The sidebar details an example of a user expending substant
ial effort with little result because she didn't modify her research strateg
y. The user racked up 22 pageviews across 8 different sites (including the s
earch engine) trying to find the most populous city in the world. She did fi
nd an answer, but decided on it for the wrong reasons and without understand
ing the underlying problem =E2=80=94 that there are two ways of counting cit
y populations: with and without suburbs.
This outcome is a
ll the more striking because the user was a schoolteacher who emphasized the
need to teach students to critically evaluate online information sources.
Some users simply take the first a
nswer they stumble across and run with it. But more careful users =E2=80=94 l
ike the teacher in this example =E2=80=94 usually end up spending more time w
ithout much more benefit because they're limited by the search engine result
After finding several widely d
iverging estimates of "biggest city" (ranging from 12 million to 34 million p
eople), it would have been reasonable to change the research strategy and tr
y to find an authoritative site on the topic of urban populations. Such a sh
ift would likely have provided more insight than relying on the simplified l
ists posted on many sites that specialize in other topics and don't explain h
ow they derive their data.
Is Too Good
The problem in the a
bove examples =E2=80=94 and for many other users in our recent tests =E2=80=94
is that search engines are turning into "answer engines." Users are being t
rained to limit themselves to pages included in the SERP listing. Indeed, fo
r many problems, the actual answer is right there. But the concept that you m
ight have to sometimes go beyond search listings is getting lost.
For many problems, there are better approaches than simply scrolling
to the bottom of the SERP. You might, for example, try to locate a site tha
t specializes in the problem. Or =E2=80=94 as in our cold/flu symptom proble
m =E2=80=94 you might simply change the way you think about the problem.
Sadly, when one approach is so easy (
and works much of the time), users never develop the research skills needed t
o try or even consider other approaches.
What can we do about this?
For today's Web design projects, we must design for the way the world is, n
ot the way we wish it were. This means accepting search dominance, and tryin
g to help users with poor research skills. For example, sites listing city p
opulations could state explicitly that there are two ways to estimate popula
tion, rather than simply offer a single estimate without further explanation
. And proper medical sites could design pages for how patients search for in
formation, rather than for how doctors think about it.
the long term, we should try to improve the world rather than design to sui
t its shortcomings. One example of how we might do this is to teach better I
nternet research skills in schools.
Mental models and the design lessons from ps
ychology will be discussed in the full-day seminar on The Human Mind and Usa
bility at the annual Usability Week conference.
rence also has a 2-day seminar on Writing for the Web. The seminar on Web Pa
ge Design discusses how you can help users who arrive through deep links ins
tead of through your homepage.
t; Other Alertbox columns (complete list)
up for newsletter that will notify you of new Alertboxes
Copyright =C2=A9 2011 by Jakob Nielsen. ISSN 1548-5552
Previous post | Top of Page | Next post