Dana Douglas delivered a presentation at the Information Architecture Summit: User Interface Issues with Metasearch. The talk got my attention because it’s not just based on someone’s untested ideas. Dana’s firm, UserWorks, did usability testing of a number of federated search applications. These included Science.gov, Scitopia.org, and a number of federated search applications at the Library of Congress, the NIH Library, and the American Chemical Society. Note that the search engines for the first two applications were built by blog sponsor Deep Web Technologies.

I believe the slides do an excellent job of summarizing the major points of the usability studies on the specific applications; I’ll emphasize what I think is most important. If you’re going to listen to the talk and watch the slides you may find the points below helpful:

  1. The audio recording of Dana’s talk is available at the Boxes and Arrows site, near the middle of the page.
  2. The talk is a little over 36 minutes so leave yourself time to listen to it. You might want to download it to an MP3 device.
  3. When I clicked on the link to play the recording on the Boxes and Arrows site I found that the audio speed was too fast. This was in Firefox.
  4. When I downloaded the audio file, I discovered that it was in m4a format. Not being an audio kind of guy and noticing that the Windows Media Player wouldn’t play it I googled to learn about playing m4a files. It turned out that my Quicktime player dealt with the file just fine so I was on my way.
  5. I found that the talk has sound gaps every minute or so. While mildly annoying, I found I could compensate for this by also looking at the slides. Which leads me to …
  6. What would a talk about user interfaces be without visual aids? Again, Google came to the rescue. Slideshare has the slides. Note that there are some notes about each slide below the slide window.
  7. In summary, download the podcast and the slides, figure out how to play m4a files and you’re set.

Here’s a short bio of the presenter from IA Summit description of the talk:

Dana Douglas is a user experience specialist at UserWorks. She has conducted usability testing, focus groups, and user surveys for a variety of government and private sector clients. Search capabilities have been an issue in many of the user interfaces with which she has worked. Dana has a bachelors degree in information systems from the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) and is enrolled in the masters program in human-centered computing there.

Here are a few of the points I found to be particularly interesting:

  1. Many of us think that user design is simple, that if we all designed our search interfaces to look like Google that we’d be done. No. We need to realize that search functionality is evolving and the features need to evolve to keep up.
  2. None of the users who tested the incremental results feature liked it. They found it confusing. Users apparently don’t like popups and they would mostly just close the popup that told them that they had more results without even reading the message. And, users were very confused about results being added to their initial set. All users said they’d rather wait for all the results although Dana admits further study is needed to determine how long they’d wait. You may want to read my article on incremental results for background on the issue. The answer to non-instant results — give them a progress bar and have them wait.
  3. Most users don’t care what sources their results come from, but they do want to know which sources are being searched and they do want a way to pick which sources to search.
  4. Always have an advanced search and make it very easy for users to find it. And, be sure to document its use well, perhaps with search examples.
  5. When working with clustered results, users expect that the second cluster they pick should refine, not override the first cluster they pick.
  6. Blue hypertext links are overused!
  7. Topic (subject), author, and date were the most important clusters.
  8. Users expect spell checking, Boolean logic, and everything that Google does!
  9. Users assume that featured links are advertisements and they skip them.
  10. Including text extracts and highlighting search terms is a good thing. Scitopia got kudos for doing this well, and also for having a nice layout and avoiding those blue hypertext links. I should note that the team building Scitopia hired a professional web design firm just to design the user interface.

There’s a lot more meat in the talk that I didn’t cover. I highly recommend you have a listen for yourself.

What usability issues have you or your colleagues or users found in federated search? Do let us know.

If you enjoyed this post, make sure you subscribe to the RSS feed!


This entry was posted on Thursday, April 16th, 2009 at 7:31 pm and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or TrackBack URI from your own site.

4 Responses so far to "Federated search UI woes"

  1. 1 Jonathan Rochkind
    April 17th, 2009 at 6:17 am  

    Thanks! Interesting!

    The negativity toward incremental results matches my own intuition and anecdotal observation.

  2. 2 Peter Murray
    April 17th, 2009 at 12:39 pm  

    I haven’t listened to the presentation audio, but I’d be surprised if a UX specialist would recommend going away from the standard blue browser link. I did look at the slide that mentioned this in the presentation and the comment would seem to apply to the display of facets. Did you get the same impression listening to the audio?

  3. 3 Sol
    April 22nd, 2009 at 12:38 pm  


    Of course you’re right and slide #16 makes the “avoid excessive blue hyperlinks” point in the context of facets. My bad.

  4. 4 Peter Murray
    April 23rd, 2009 at 4:07 am  

    Thanks for the clarification, Sol! The advice about not using the standard blue link color for facets makes sense.

Leave a reply

Name (*)
Mail (*)