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Seeing Search Boxes

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.

Published inSearch and Discovery


  1. I’m glad to hear it isn’t just my students (and faculty) — I’ve had every one of the experiences you’ve mentioned. We have a search box for people to search for a specific journal title in serials solutions, and even in the middle of an instruction session (where I’ve shown them how to get to a specific database and search in it), I’ll see students typing their query into the serials solutions search box. Originally, I liked the idea of having multiple search boxes on the front page of the website to save students and faculty clicks, but now I’m seeing the negative side of that. I’m really not sure what the best solution is, since they also can’t find the databases on our website.

    Certain databases absolutely need to have advanced search options, even if most students won’t use them. Even after teaching students in an info lit session how to limit Historical Abstracts to just English (since there are a lot of non-English titles indexed in there), some don’t bother to use it. They just type in their query and then are dismayed that 40% or more of their results are in Japanese, Hungarian, German, etc. But for the ones who do, that option is invaluable.

  2. I’m not someone who thinks every search interface should look like Google, but I am leaning toward believing that every search box should work like Google. I want to see implied AND everywhere. Implied phrase drives my students nuts when they can’t figure out why they can’t find anything on “relationships absalom faulkner” or whatever space-separated keywords they come up with.

    Uh, I think that was on topic.

  3. Iris Iris

    Yeah, I really don’t know what the solution is to make people stop and consider what they’re searching before they enter their topic keywords. But at least now I’m less worried by arguments about advanced search screens being too cluttered. If people who don’t need those options (or don’t know they need those options) don’t see the anything but the search box and people who want those options see them, everybody wins! Well, except for the people who really want a date limiter but don’t see it an inch away.

    Steve… not so much on topic, but I agree with you anyway. Wholeheartedly. So I’m glad you said that. :-)

  4. If you don’t have any control over the underlying search application, everything you say makes sense.

    However, there are two aspects of your users’ experience that you can control
    Search Algorithm — if you can develop an algorithm that works like Google’s to take natural-language queries, etc., you only need a single search box
    UI Design — if users are confused or do not see the search form elements, some design work, page-specific IA, etc. would improve the user experience. Make a date picker look like a date picker (even jazz it up a bit!). If the date picker in the thumbnail above appeared before the search button (and the horizontal rule and possibly-harmful reset button were removed), perhaps more people would see it.

    I guess my point is that it’s not just about what you offer, but what it looks like and how it works. If many people are confused by your database name search, maybe that’s not the right interface element for that purpose.

  5. Iris Iris

    Yep. All that is true. I wish I had control over either algorithms or interfaces, but I don’t. (And really, my students are often incredibly happy and relieved to learn about even Google’s advanced search and limiter options, so that’s not even the gold standard yet.)

    Really, I’d prefer to live in the future, when search interfaces will do a mind meld and the instantly deliver exactly what I was looking for. No search boxes necessary. :-)

  6. Our school just changed it’s main page from a single search box with a few advanced options to a single search page with no advanced options. Generally, for those who only see a single box, our assessments have shown that they like it. For those who want advanced, it’s more of a hassle because they have to find the adv options. On top of that, we are planning to implement Summon as soon as it’s ready later this year. All of this leads me to say that I’m with Brad: if you have the ability to change your UI and the way your resources are searched (i.e. using something like Summon), you can tweak the search page to make the best of both worlds: for the people see what they want, give them the best search algorithms and for the people who want advanced search, give them a good UI. =)

  7. Iris Iris

    John, I think you’re a lot more optimistic about those things than I am. I haven’t seen algorithms that will account for most of the advanced search options that my students use every day. Most algorithms can’t even parse authors’ names if they’re not entered correctly, which boggles my mind. UI changes are nice and I’m all for implementing them well and carefully. I guess I’m more interested in my students’ selective blindness and what we can learn from that. And currently, with my students and my faculty and the kinds of research they do, the conventional wisdom of “get rid of everything because everyone knows that single search boxes are the way to go” simply won’t cut it, and apparently doesn’t have to!

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