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We are building a search engine for fun experiences, we want to allow the users to ask questions like

where can I ride a bike

where can I swim with dolphins

where can I __ + __

usually this will be verb + noun

We want to allow easy open question asking but still direct the users to the possible choices but we want to avoid the huge directory trap where all activities are categorized.

Any ideas on nice ways to do that ?

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Can you be more specific about the structure? Are the only parts you want the user to fill in the "verb" and the "noun"? Or do you also want them to fill in the preposition? – Benjamin Malley Mar 14 '13 at 19:49
Hi and welcome to UX.SE! You have an interesting question asked, so I would like to know more. Is this a question regarding the implementation of search whitout a lot of dictionaries used. Instead you would like to use something else as your index, and you want to know what that something is? – Benny Skogberg Mar 14 '13 at 19:50
We give the users the ability to ask an open question, these always starts with "where can I ..." and then they can write whatever they want in the following blank of course in context of what we are talking about which is fun activities / experiences, other users can offer answers and we thus build a knowledge base. But we want to be able to direct users to something like auto suggest by Google, so they can see previous questions and hopefully use these as a starting point. I think in a way it's similar to what you do here when people ask questions but in a more narrow way. – Oron Mar 14 '13 at 20:00
If you first promise but then take away from the user the ability to write freely, it feels like a big let-down. IMHO, you have either to perfect your natural language processing facility, or to offer two comboboxes (with incremental search, of course) one after another. YMMV – Deer Hunter Mar 14 '13 at 22:15
up vote 4 down vote accepted

One approach for this would be as such, where they are shown "suggestions" on how to make correct queries. When they are not typing (textbox not focused), they will be shown animations on some example queries.

When the text box is focused, the animation stops, the words become solid black (as opposed to grey), and the user begins the search with "where can i".

This carries the advantage of a typical textbox where questions are open, while still being able to guide them to search the way you'd like them to.

You might also want to take a look at how handles their search (similar concept, although theirs displays a "suggestion history".

(see enter image description here

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I added the image from your link to the answer. Welcome to UX.SE :) – kontur Mar 15 '13 at 7:48
This is a nice solution ! – Oron Mar 15 '13 at 20:58
I found this Jquery plugin - which also has a demo of what you suggested. – Oron Mar 16 '13 at 5:13

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