Advanced Search

In response to Lou (and Chris), I'm posting this Search Patterns excerpt:

A relative concept, advanced search includes whatever simple search doesn't. It's a pattern that many of us love to hate. Often, advanced search is a clumsy add-on that's rarely used, and it lets engineers and designers take the easy way out. Valuable features that are difficult to integrate into the main interface can be relocated to the ghetto and forgotten.

Plus, there's confusion about its purpose. Is it a user-friendly query builder for novices or a power tool for experts? Many interfaces try (and fail) to be both. For instance, isn't it fair to assume that users who understand what "exact phrase" means also know to use quotation marks to specify such a search? The main problem with Boolean isn't the syntax, it's the logic. And even the plain language shown in Figure 4-28 is unlikely to help the few novices who brave the intimidating realm of advanced search.

Advanced Search

This pattern also suffers from an ignorance of context. Searches are situated. They take place in a space. Having navigated through music to the folk genre, users may want to search without leaving. Scoped search is a pattern that meets this need. There's a risk that users won't see the scope, but overrides in the case of few or no results can help. In most cases, users benefit, because scoped search caters to context. In contrast, advanced search often teleports us to a distant, unfamiliar locale.

It's disruptive to flow.

Interestingly, Exalead, shown in Figure 4-29, combines help and advanced search without asking users to leave. A click on Advanced Search launches an interactive menu below the box. It's unconventional and a little clumsy, but definitely worth a look.

Despite these difficulties, advanced search isn't only an antipattern. It does help some users learn about the available metadata fields and vocabularies, and offers a path toward greater precision through field-specific searching. Plus, even when we reject the advanced/basic dichotomy and build robust functionality into the main interface, and strive to support contextual queries with scoped search, it's inevitable that some features that are useful for some tasks and for some people will be left out.

In fact, we should worry if they're not. Advanced search offers a safe harbor for edge cases and a clear path to progressive disclosure. For instance, Flickr includes features in advanced search, like limit by license, that simply don't belong on the main stage.

Of equal import, advanced search in concept, if not by name, gets us to think outside the box. What's the basic interface missing? How else might users wish to search? These are the questions that lead to innovations like Midomi's search by singing, GazoPa's discover by drawing, and Etsy's fabulously fun feature, explore by color.

Etsy's Advanced Search

In conclusion, advanced search is a pattern on the edge. In practice, it's often abused and rarely used. It can be rendered unnecessary by the narrowing and scoping of faceted navigation and personalization. Yet, like federated search, it invites us to go further in our search for ideas, and serves as a forgiving playground for experiments and exploration.

Strange Connections

A special edition of Radio Johnny in which Clifton B interviews presenters from the fifth annual IDEA 2010 conference in Philadelphia.