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I'm working on a address search which is targeted at a not very web/tech-savvy audience (mostly mid-aged male electricians or electrical engineers). The implementation already allows us to have a single input field, which accepts mixed input (like street only, or zip + street, or city + zip, etc) and displays matching results. However, as a consequence of this flexibility, the current UI comes with quite some text as to how to use this field. Namely, it says something like:

You can enter any address detail, such as street, city, or zip code. Please separate entries with a comma or a space. If you are unsure about the spelling, you may also provide only the beginning letters, such as Albu for Albuquerque. You need to provide at least three characters.

I can't yet observe any real users while handling the thing, but from previous experience with far shorter notes, I assume that this rather lengthy text does not receive any attention and thus fails its original intent of being helpful. (And although the implementation is similar to widely known searches such as Google Maps, from previous experiences with our users we cannot expect it to be self-explanatory to all when we simply omit the text).

So I was looking for ways to either make it shorter or make it more prominent when people actually have trouble in understanding things. So some of the questions I have are:

  • I moved the examples into the input field itself (greyed out italics). However, when putting this as a comma separated list 'city, street, zip' does this convey the optionality of the entries or would this be read a prescription on how to exactly enter your query? Plus these are only the most common. Can users infer the remaining possibilities (e.g. suburb)?

  • Would it improve matters to only display the hints when the search has provided no results (this mostly applies to the type-only-the-first-letters option) or failed (because less than three characters were entered (relates to this question))

  • Would it improve matters to show the text on entering the field, so that it's "sudden" appearance catches the users attention and clearly marks this text as related to the input field (I think this might be distracting for everybody who understands the search box just fine)

If anybody has experience with this kind of help texts or can point me to good working samples I'd be glad to check them out.

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Rather than offering the user a "we didn't find anything, try typing only the first 3 characters" message, just ask the user: "You typed Albuqerqee. Did you mean Albuquerque?" You can offer such tips underneath such a message, but nobody will pay attention. –  Brian Aug 28 '12 at 15:39
    
Unfortunately, I don't think the search implementation offers a "did you mean...?" feature. –  Louise Aug 29 '12 at 9:38
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1 Answer

That help text is definitely way too long. I'd simply offer some examples perhaps with a bit of help text:

SEARCH: [ (enter a partial or full address)                          ]

        Examples: "12 5th Street, New York" or "Boston" or "98210"

I think the key being the phrase 'partial or full'. I think that explains clearly that it doesn't need to be a complete address.

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