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I'm currently working on 2 different websites: an events and a news websites. On both sites, a search interface with filter options is provided.

Initially, the search engine was build to return an error message if the user's query was empty. Since the search engine is looking for individual items in database and not specific content within the site, I'm thinking that returning all results (i.e. all news/events in my contexts) could be an interesting functionality. The user would then have the possibility to filter down his search. This is how the search works on the Financial Times.

What are your thoughts on this matter?

Thanks :)

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Moving to more human-like computer system, you could give to the system some human features:

  • Politeness -- don't make use blame himself of his error (this effect is described by D.Norman in The Design of Everyday Things). Just point it gently.
  • Forgiveness -- both computers and humans make errors. Forgive the user and he will forgive the system's error once.
  • Helpfulness -- provide some helpful information instead of error message.
  • Memory -- provide some information which is relevant to previous user search, i.e. based on his interest.
  • Moderation -- don't provide all news, too much is not good. And old events and news are not best choice, too.
  • Fun -- deliver some surprise and fun.
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Sometimes it can help to take a look at what the giants are doing for tricky usability questions like this one.

  • Google, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter do nothing and give no message.
  • Bing and Baidu take you back to the homepage and give no message.
  • Yahoo takes you back to the search homepage and gives no message.
  • Wikipedia takes you to the search results page with no results shown and gives no message.
  • Amazon takes you back to the homepage if the "All" category is selected. If another category is selected, either the homepage for that category or a listing of all results in the category will be shown. In either case, there is no error message.
  • LinkedIn lists all results.

What can we conclude? None of these sites give an error message. So, of the two options you provided, I would personally select showing all results.

You also have a third option, which is to do nothing. Giving zero feedback is very difficult to try to justify and should generally be avoided in most cases. Keep in mind that these sites are not in your domain, are all very popular and are mostly search-centric sites, so doing exactly what these sites do may not apply to yours.

However, an argument can be made for doing nothing:

  • Showing all results might be confusing to users
  • Lack of any change upon click could (maybe) be feedback in and of itself
  • Leaving the page empty of any distractions may help the user focus on the search field and notice the mistake
  • Precedent. We can safely assume almost all users have used one of the above websites before, and this is clearly common practice.
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