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I am looking for some help regarding UX/design guidelines targeted at (web) application internal search functionality. I have tried searching the Google and this site, but the overwhelming majority of information available has to do with guidelines for search functionality in content-based websites, which is not the same thing.

Below is an example of one of the search forms available in our application (datepicker format is wrong because of legacy controls, and the translations on the controls are not the best ever, but try to make do).

To get to the point, what is the current general opinion of search forms like this, with perhaps additional criteria hidden behind an "advanced search" expandable panel vs. a single search field applied to all relevant database fields, with search results sorted and ranked according to some sensible logic (exact matches higher than partials, etc.)? With the second option, more detailed criteria fields could be offered either under "advanced search", or then if the search results produced too few/many results.

enter image description here

We do not have any statistics currently on usage behaviour, as that was not considered by whoever made the previous version. The plan is to include statistics in this remake, so we have better information available for the next version.

TLDR: Search form with multiple fields vs. unified single search field. Current direction of application design, preferably with some research/documentation as evidence?

Thank you in advance for your help.

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It's hard to do search without understanding how the underlying algorithm works. You seem to be considering a transition to a unified free-text search a la Google. Does your application support free text search? If not, are you planning on implementing this functionality? Obviously I can't know this, but the legacy form in your app looks strictly database driven, which probably means most or all of the fields are required. –  Benjamin Malley Feb 26 '13 at 16:49
    
@BenjaminMalley The search targets are almost entirely single database fields (rather than documents or long text fields). However, anecdotal evidence has suggested that users don't always remember if the ID, for example, was for the education title or group. A unified search would ameliorate this issue. One concern with a unified search is that the user doesn't know what fields exactly are search targets. –  Miika L. Feb 27 '13 at 7:22
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2 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Benjamin has raised a very valid point as to how does the search algorithm work and if all the fields would be needed to determine if the search result is effective.

Another question that comes to mind is who is your user base and how likely are they to use the advanced search option.

However looking at your search functionality, it seems very academic oriented and hence I assume that would be your target audience. Going by that assumption, With the little research I could find, it seems like academics and librarians are the biggest users of academic search. To quote this study by Tim Bray

Of course, the people who do use Advanced Search are your most fanatical users, the professional librarians, spooks, and private investigators. And the ones who will do what it takes to find out everything about research on the rare disease their child just got diagnosed with. These people tend to be loud-mouthed and aggressive and will get in your face if you don’t have advanced search or it’s not real good.

However if you look at Jacob Neislons alertbox, he has this to say about the displaying of the advanced search on the home page or the primary page

Advanced Search: Not

In our recent search study, the mean query length was 2.0 words. Other studies also show a preponderance of simple searches. Most users cannot use advanced search or Boolean query syntax.

Do not offer advanced search from the home page. Advanced search leads users into trouble, as they invariably use it wrong. When it makes sense, offer advanced search as an option users can link to from the search results page: "Didn't find what you were looking for? Try advanced search."

That said, Your eventual search design would depend on how important providing all the options are to the users and how likely they are to use cross segmentation of the different options available i.e. search by Educational title and Education title ID as well instead of just using one of the options. Also as mentioned above, you would have to determine the search design based upon your target user group and how they might utilize the feature.

Another option which you can use to provide all the features is by providing a scoped search which will enable users to search across everything or single sections. An excellent example of this has been lifted from this question : enter image description here

In closing, I would recommend thinking about your design with these words in mind with regards to what search layout design you should go for

there will always be applications for which it makes sense to divide the audience into two or more groups, such as medical information sites that serve both clinical professionals and the public. But in such cases, a more scalable approach may be to consider how the whole experience (i.e., content, navigation, transactional functionality, etc.) could be adapted for each audience, rather than making the search function the only place where special user types get special treatment. An effective search experience puts “advanced” search tools in the hands of all users, as and when the users are able and willing to use them.

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Thank you for your answer Mervin. To give some additional information, the userbase is mostly administrative and teaching staff at educational institutes of varying levels. Anecdotal evidence would suggest they tend to search using one of those fields at a time (but not always the same one). I quite like your suggestion of the scoped search, and will possibly use that as the base with advanced search offered as a follow-up option as per Jacob Neilson's suggestion. Thanks for the detailed answer. –  Miika L. Feb 27 '13 at 7:18
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I came across a reasonable good reference that covers a lot of the research involving search interface design and implementation. I am interested to see what you think of it and how useful it is in answering your question.

http://searchuserinterfaces.com/

I think is worthwhile thinking about search and browse as slightly different actions that have overlapping user intention and behaviour. Search can be thought of as using keywords and filters to return a constrainted result set, whereas browse can be thought of as using navigation and filters to return an unconstrained result set. Unless you really understand the exact intentions of the person doing the search, you are better off making it as flexible as possible by combining both types of actions in the interface.

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