Search experience: Defining search goals

Search goals bring the design process into focus. They help you make the right decisions and create opportunities for new ideas and solutions. By not defining goals, you risk creating generic, out-of-the-box search experiences that let down your users and your business.

This article is one in a series on designing the search experience.

If you were in charge of a self-service support website, would you design search differently if your objective was to lower escalations from the website to the call centre?

Yes, you would.

You would start by identifying the circumstances under which people escalate and then set out to systematically address each situation. Because a self-service website is content-centric, you may investigate content, navigation and search. You would then define goals for each one of them, thereby, setting their direction and expectations. Search in this way becomes a player, not a bystander, in the effort to lower escalations.

Search is a player, not bystander in meeting business objectives

The goal for search, in this case, may be to help customers find the right answers effortlessly so that they can resolve their issues and get on with their job. With the goal defined, you now have criteria to select the right ideas.

For example, let's say user research reveals that many people are looking for the operating hours of branch offices. You realise that this information is in a PDF document. It means people have to first know that the information is in a PDF document, then download it to their computer and finally locate the operating hours for the specific branch. Does this experience help meet the search goal? Obviously not.

A good goal-aligned solution could be to extract the information from the PDF document and offer it right on the search results snippet. Simple. Quick. Effortless.

"Help people find stuff" is not a search goal. Neither is, "Improve the accuracy of search". These are vague statements that don't explicitly state the expectations or the value to the business.

You can define a good search goal using the format:

Search should <meet this business objective> by helping <these people> <do these tasks>.

Here are some examples using the format. Search should:

  • Minimise the time it takes to assemble a project team by helping managers quickly find the right people with the right experience in the organisation.
  • Maximise rental output of managed properties by helping agents identify price and occupancy changes in neighbourhoods.
  • Grow clients' investment portfolios by helping bank representatives quickly analyse and select the right products for their clients.

Some people add targets to goals, such as “lower time to assemble a team by 10%”. You can do this if you already have baseline measurements. If you don't, wait 3-4 months to gather baseline data and then include the targets.

Sometimes you may have to define multiple goals. It is usually the case when you have different user groups working on the same collection. For example, students and academics will have different goals searching the same medical research database.

Having multiple goals increases not only the number of use cases you need to address but also the risk of a confusing search experience. But these are the hard realities you must address. Instead of ignoring them and offering general, sterile search experiences, you can use the goals to create custom, fruitful ones.

While a goal may be drawn up in a boardroom, it has to play out on the shopfloor. The remaining seven elements of the search experience are the blueprint for meeting the search goals.

Next up: Users.

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