The Usability of No Results

Have you heard the expression "URLs are dead"? Web users don’t remember URLs anymore. We search for what we need. This is a boon for Google, Microsoft (Live), Yahoo, et al because they can sell advertising space beside the search results.

Unfortunately the state of search on individual sites isn’t quite as evolved as the highly tuned general-purpose search engines.

Consider the following search result page from a major electronics retailer here in Canada:


I am in need of a Display Port adapter. Apparently this retailer has nothing matching DisplayPort. Take a close look at what the page tells me and what it suggests I do next.

We Were Unable to Find Exact Matches

Telling me that there were no exact matches leaves me wondering: Did I spell it wrong? Is it "Display Port" or DisplayPort or Displayport? Web users have become quite accustomed to receiving a "helpful suggestion" after a failed search. This result page makes me feel like I’ve wandered so far into the weeds that I don’t even warrant a simple "perhaps you might want to look at xyz".

Please Try Your Search Again

Clearly I did not find what I was looking for so it’s reasonable to assume I might like to try another search. Great suggestion, Searchresult.asp. OK, let me just type something else in the search box. Wait a second, where’s the search box? It must be around here somewhere.  Nope. Closest thing they have here is a link to "search help section" where there actually is a search box.

Suggestions for You, Me, and the Retailer

1. Help the lost user. This page at a minimum should have a search box on it. Better still it should try to be helpful by attempting to figure out what kind of product I might be searching for. A failed search should not be designed as a dead end (but it’s oh so easy to do, isn’t it?).

2. Monitor failed searches. With just a wee bit of effort, you can tease some really useful data out of failed searches. If a lot of people are searching for DisplayPort, you know you should start selling Display Port cables or adapters. If a lot of people are typing HMDI instead of HDMI, show the HDMI search results instead of nothing.

3. Don’t leave important user experience design decisions up to programmers. I’m willing to bet a nice steak dinner that this page was "designed" (read: thrown together quickly with little thought) by a programmer. Programmers are not like regular Internet users. A programmer will search, miss, navigate back, and search again without taking his fingers off the keyboard ("What? Doesn’t everyone use Alt + Back Arrow to navigate in their browser?"). A programmer will use advanced Google commands like to search the site. A programmer will assume the search feature is weak and retry variations with/without spaces, capital letters, etc.

And remember, dear reader, that we are to be grateful that major retailers have web sites at all. Don’t let the lovey-dovey gloss of "groundswell thinking", "social media", and "participation" fool you into thinking they care about you. You want a Display Port adapter. They don’t sell Display Port adapters. So bugger off.

At least that’s what the search result page tells me.

  1 comment for “The Usability of No Results

  1. March 3, 2009 at 10:14 am

    This is a constant frustration for me and often from retailers you think would know better. I’m now in the habit of going to a Google search when I get a failed result because I’ve wasted way too much time hunting for hidden info etc. on sites that either don’t have it or have it hidden away somewhere and can’t give you a proper search result.

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