Search experience: Understanding users and top tasks

Studying users will help surface dominant personas and their top search tasks. The findings can help you take your search from a drab, out-of-the-box offering to a specific and effective search experience.

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

If you knew something special about the users of your search app, would you design the experience differently?

Yes, you would.

For example, if you know that policymakers who use your search app need data for their work, how would you address a query like, "What is the GDP of Cambodia?" Would you give them links to documents containing the GDP data for Cambodia? Or would you show the GDP data, the answer, directly in the results snippet, as Google does?

Google gives a direct answer in response to the query: gdp of cambodia.

4 search personas

In Designing the Search Experience, authors Tony Russell-Rose and Tyler Tate introduce the concept of “search modes” to counter the commonly held assumption that search is just about finding something. They state:

Defining the search problem as one of findability alone is a common misconception. Moreover, it unnecessarily constrains our view and limits opportunities to look beyond information retrieval and on to broader information needs and goals. An online shopper, for example, whose goal is to understand the options available in choosing an affordable home entertainment system, has needs that go far beyond pure findability. And likewise, an engineer, whose goal is to manage the risks associated with component obsolescence, has needs that go far beyond finding information (p. 71-72)

Search modes tell us that users have different requirements when looking for information. They use search not just to find information but also to explore, compare, analyse, monitor, etc. This insight is essential to designing effective search experiences.

There are four common types of search behaviours. Described using character portrayals or personas, these are:

  1. Assistant
  2. Explorer
  3. Analyst
  4. Executive
Persona Desired outcomes


Just the answers.


  • Do I need a visa to enter Myanmar?
  • How many pounds in a kilogram?
  • What does this transaction code mean?


The breadth and depth of options.


  • Where do I advertise for Java developers?
  • What are the restaurants near me?
  • What are my employment benefits?


Making the right decision.


  • Does that company really sell ‘fair-trade’ coffee?
  • Which is the best phone to buy for Dad?
  • How does the Nissan X-Trail compare with other cars in its class?


Trends and insights.


  • How have sales fared since the apology for faulty software in our cars?
  • How many cases were opened this year and how many were closed?
  • Which areas in Singapore have the highest yield for office rentals?

These personas offer a lens through which you can better understand user needs and behaviours. But first, you need to invest the time and effort to study your users.

Meeting your users to learn first-hand what they do and why, how they work and the bottlenecks they face will open your mind to ideas that will help in designing effective search experiences.

After your study, you should be able to answer two important questions:

  1. Is there a dominant search persona at play?
  2. What are the top search tasks?

A dominant persona emerges when you find that many users exhibit behaviours similar to one of the four personas we described earlier. For example, if you find that many users are trying to get overviews and trends, then you're seeing signs of an 'Executive' persona at play.

Knowing the dominant persona will help surface the right ideas. Continuing with the 'Executive', they clearly favour dashboards and charts over documents and links.

After you’ve identified the search personas (both dominant and secondary) you need to define the top search tasks for each one of them.

Top search tasks

A top search task is a task that matters a lot to many users (hat tip to Gerry McGovern's Top Task Management process). For example, the dominant persona on a bank’s self-support website will typically be an 'Assistant'—find quick answers. A top search task may be to find the location of the bank’s branches and their operating hours.

A search task embodies a job a user is trying to get done. The act of searching is not the goal, it is a means to accomplishing a job. The person looking for the 'GDP of Cambodia' will perhaps use the data in a slide deck pitched at investors. The job-to-be-done then is to get investment, not to download the GDP data. Similarly, the job-to-be-done for the person looking at the bank’s operating hours is perhaps to pay for an overseas purchase, not to find the ‘contact us’ page. Knowing the job-to-be-done will help in designing effective search experiences.

Incidentally, the Job-to-be-done, or JTBD for short, is a popular marketing and product development strategy championed by Clayton Christensen, an acclaimed professor at Harvard Business School.

The JTBD is often identified by interviewing users, especially along their decision-making journeys. The journey reveals many different type of jobs that users try to get done and how they choose among alternative solutions.

For example, the person looking for GDP data on Cambodia can get the information from several sources such as journals, databases or personal contacts. The choice of a particular source reveals the person's criteria for getting the job done. It could be the speed of finding the information and copying it into a slide deck.

Once the the job-to-be-done is identified, you can write it down using the form:

  • When I…
  • I want to…
  • So that I can…

For example:

  • When I want to pitch to investors
  • I want to use data to convince them on market opportunities in Cambodia
  • So that I can get financial investment for my project

You can also add some criteria of success, such as:

  • Ease of finding the right data
  • Ease of making changes to the data
  • Ease of copying data to a slide deck

An important point to note is that a study of search persona and their search tasks expressed as JTBD statements will reveal many gaps in the quality of the available content.

For example, a JTBD may suggest presenting a country’s GDP information as a graph on search result snippets. But the content may be in data tables inside PDF documents. The right thing to do in this case is to figure out an automatic way to extract the data table and build the graphs. Yes, this may be a lot of work to do, but it is essential if you want to create a culture of designing compelling search experiences.

Next up: designing search interfaces that cater to dominant personas and search tasks.

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