We’ve all heard that single search boxes are the only way to go when it comes to building search interfaces. We’ve probably also seen students who will bypass all relevant information or links on a page and zero in on whatever looks like a search box. But I never put these two pieces of knowledge together before. Not, that is, until just this morning as I was driving in to work. This morning I had a revelation:
Every page with a search box is a “single search box” page.
We may gripe about clutter. We may grouse about having not enough guidance surrounding our search boxes. It doesn’t matter. For people who are primed to search, they will only see the search box anyway. The other stuff may as well not be there. (For those of you getting hot under the collar like I would be if I were reading this right now? Hang on, I’ve got something for you in a minute.)
Here’s my Parable With Two Screenshots. We have several lists of electronic resources on our library’s website, each of which has a “Search” and “Browse” function at the top.
We’ve gently corrected students who started entering their topic keywords into the “search” box, but haven’t been able to get rid of the box entirely. “Oh those kids,” we thought. “Desperately seeking search boxes again.”
Then last week I had a professor call me in consternation that the library systems were telling her there was nothing on her topic. Turns out… she had entered her topic terms into that search box.
Ok, ok, so that one’s legitimately confusing. We’ve realized that while the existence of the box is out of our control, the wording next to it isn’t. Soon it’ll say something more like “find a database.” Still, this is only the first half of the parable, and probably not the most relevant half at that. It’s mostly relevant in that its proximity to the second half made everything come together in my head. And so, on to the second half…
For the past two weeks, I’ve also had students from a lit class coming to see me, all of whom want “something, anything from the last ten years written about [insert famous theme] and [insert famous piece of literature here].” Granted, searching for themes is hard. Even something standard like “performative identity” requires thinking up all kinds of synonyms (body, fashion, display, etc). But what struck me is that as soon as I set the date limiter on MLA International Bibliography, each student gasped in shock and surprise. This limiter is not hidden. It is three lines, or 1 inch, below the search boxes. And yet it had been totally invisible to my students as they focused all their energies on those tantalizing search boxes.
So now back to my revelation (and those of you who’ve been thinking “But we simply can’t do away with advanced search pages! Single search boxes aren’t always the way to go!!” can tune back in now). Here’s what I now think: We can feel free to have advanced search pages on any interface that we think functions better with all of those options laid out. It doesn’t matter. People who only want a single search box will only see that search box anyway. People who want the options will see and appreciate the options. Everybody happy.