What is search experience?

An experience is what a person goes through and remembers. A search experience, therefore, is a person's feelings and memories of using search. People embrace pleasant experiences and reject awful ones. Experiences, however, are hard to design. They depend on many factors. The first step is to uncover and unpack them.

User experience. Customer experience. Search experience. We come across these terms everyday. But really, what is this experience thing?

An experience is what a person goes through and remembers.

Let's unpack this definition.

When you are searching, you quickly become immersed in the act. Your expectations are tested and challenged. You are constantly assessing the interaction. The interaction takes over your thinking, feeling and doing. You are now in an experiencing state of mind. Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize winner and author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, calls this the "experiencing self". This self lives in the present and takes in everything—the good and bad moments.

The present is delicate. It is easily influenced. You may be experiencing a perfect date night, but a single persistent housefly in love with your head can ruin it all.

In search, the irritating housefly role is played by irrelevant results, random links and obtuse interfaces. This is why Google invests so heavily in ensuring every aspect of the experience is accounted for and designed to offer positive 'experiencing moments'.

The "experiencing" self is not as influential as its counterpart—the "remembering self". Without it there would be no recollection of the experience. Kahneman calls this self, the storyteller.

The remembering self is adept at gathering specific episodes from memory and stitching them to create a coherent story. Under some circumstances, this story may be biased.

The story depends on what is remembered. Kahneman's research found that there are two moments that the remembering self pays special attention to: peaks (both positive and negative) and the end. This phenomenon is called the "peak-end" rule.

Let's continue with the date night story. Everything is going fine. You've dealt with the housefly and moved on to more interesting things. You think the night is going to end perfectly. But just when you're settling the bill you face a rude and grumpy waiter who charges you for items you did not order. This one episode will colour your entire experience. You will forget the two hours of bliss and tell stories of that one negative event at the end. It's the same with a search experience.

When you need to recollect a search interaction, say when a friend asks you for some information, you tell a story. This is the story that the remembering self created. You will tell of peaks such as the serendipitous finding that led to new thinking or the crappy interface that wasted your time. Or you will tell of the end, whether or not it helped get the job done and how it made you feel.

The experiencing self and the remembering self show that there are many factors that influence an experience, and it is hard to quality control all of them.

The restaurant you chose for the date night has to get everything right for you to have a great experience. It is not just about the food. It also includes the arrival, parking, ushering, ordering, serving, billing and even chitchatting. And even if they manage to get all of this right, there is the possibility of a drunk guest ruining everything. That's an awful lot of things to fall into place. But they do. Regularly. At good restaurants.

Good restaurants put in the effort to design every stage of the guest experience. 'Design' here means a deliberate, conscious attempt to choreograph a desired outcome. It includes doing research, creating and testing multiple concepts, executing to spec, orchestrating the rollout and monitoring and improving thereafter.

It goes to say that designing a pleasant search experience is equally tough. There are many moving parts. You need to first identify them and then set out to design them well.

At Ola Search we focus on designing eight parts, or elements, of the search experience.

  1. Search goals
  2. User
  3. Interface
  4. Technology
  5. Context
  6. Content
  7. Creator
  8. Governance
search-elements
Elements of a search experience

In the coming weeks we will describe each element in detail. You can join our newsletter and we will notify you when the next article is published.

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