Building a Successful Mobile Search Interface: Part II


The New Mobile Search Metaphor: Simpler Interfaces/Smarter Apps

by Peter Wilkerson, Search and Discovery Practice Area Manager

The direction I was heading towards in the earlier article in the series, Understanding the Coming Problem, is this: mobile interfaces will be driven by search engines but the fact that search is driving them will not be immediately obvious to end-users. We already see this in portal websites, sites with web content management applications, as well as commerce/retail websites. So, while current mobile sites may or may not be search driven, at some point Mobile interfaces for content-rich sites will, in some form, be search-driven. The key will be designing the search interface to be “smart.” The jury is still out as to what that will look like. I am going to look into my crystal ball and share what I see.

Simplification of Search UI

Search apps will become much simpler. The number of options available to a user for filtering and sorting results will be reduced significantly compared to a traditional website-based search interface. The lack of screen real estate and difficulty typing will drive this.

Smarter Search Apps

To drive simpler Search UI’s the search apps themselves will have to be much smarter than they are now. Search Apps will have advanced features employed behind the scenes than was ever employed by 90% of current websites users. I believe users will be able to select one or more “search user profiles” each of which representing preset filters and keywords for enriching each query submitted. Domain experts, who know what filters to apply to get the best results in different scenarios, will manage these profiles.

Specialization of Search Apps

Currenlty search engines on retail web site’s will let you search entire inventories.  Mobile search apps will be different. Instead of letting a user search the entire inventory of a store,  we will start seeing apps that focus on a department. Already we see mobile apps give users access to only a subset of data limited according to an app’s purpose.

In the retail space we will see separate apps for selecting and purchasing jewelry, women’s clothes, men’s clothes, lawn equipment, recreation equipment, etc. Why? Because developers are trying to limit the number of choices that a user needs to make because of the small screen real estate and the perceived focus of mobile users that they are focused on completing a task at hand rather than “surfing” for information in general (We’ll postpone thinking about how users will find the right app until later in the series).

Individual Result Views will use “Informatics Graphs”

Information listed about individual documents listed in search results will have to go beyond the snippet of text highlighting search terms used. Snippets alone do not present enough information in many cases, especially in the context of a mobile device. What I see happening, driven by limited screen real estate and compounded by users brief attention spans, is that there will be better representations of the information contained in the documents returned.

Happily I don’t have to give you theoretical applications of this approach. I can point you to restaurant menus. When I look at menus at my favorite restaurants, I see dish after dish listed. I am interested in knowing aspects about each dish that go beyond what they contain. I am also interested in knowing which ones are “heart-healthy.” Many restaurant menus have a small heart-shaped symbol, an icon, to give me a quick and easy way to identify which of the dishes meet my criteria. I’ve seen some restaurants use other icons to help people find vegetarian dishes or to signify some other characteristic in which people might be interested.

With mobile search each document returned will also have an “informatics graph” of what that document is about. It might be that the graph would be displayed on the search results page itself. However, it might be that when a user clicks on a document in a search result list they will be taken to a document’s informatics graph – and this is the “cool” part – they will be able to “swipe” from one document’s graph to the next like you do between panels on mobile apps.

There are many ways to make mobile search even cooler – and this case “cooler” means keeping the interface simple while making the search app smarter.   I look forward to thinking about that together as we continue the series.

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