I am struggling with the UI presentation for a search module in a music library web application for a radio station, it will be used by on-air staff. I am working with a library of tens of thousands of albums, thousands of artists, and hundreds of thousands of tracks. Clearly, search functionality will be a key component of this application, and we're really trying to get it "right"
Within this interface, there are a row of tabs on the top (typical appearing tab-type interface). One of these tabs is "Quick Search". The intention of the contents of this tab is to provide progressive/auto-complete search results from three pools: artists, albums, and tracks. As the user types in their term, each of these three "buckets" independently displays the matching results (via AJAX), or "Did you mean?"-type suggestions when no results are found for the given term.
The trouble is, primarily, screen space. We've made the decision to limit results for each of the three buckets to 10 (there is another section of the application which provides more fine-grain searching with tags). The key to this one is speed - we're looking to accommodate a user that knows exactly (or almost exactly) what they are looking for. To that end, we also want the interface to be very clean and minimal.
Currently, the content portion of the screen is divided into three columns. Each column displays a table with the results for each of the search pools (an artist column, an album column, etc). The results tables in each column can only really fit 2-3 table columns. For example, with artists the columns would be Artist name, number of albums, and rating (internal star-based rating). If the user sees what they want, they can just click the result and move on.
This interface strikes me as too busy. Three side-by-side tables with mouseover row hiliting, a variety of data, and click actions on every row is a little overwhelming. I can't imagine dropping columns from the tables - I feel like we're already at the minimum with 3. I considered displaying only one "bucket" at a time with some kind of mechanism to switch between them, but I'm already using the tab UI element, and nested tabs strike me as an unnatural UI.
So... if you can follow all that, does anyone have any inspiration, suggestions, or ideas on how to present three separate tables, having each be easily accessible with minimal clicking to transition between each, and without using a tab UI? I hope I've described it well enough, I can provide screenshots if it would help. For reference, the entire concept is inspired by Winamp's music library search - there are three panes which display the result "buckets". I tried to emulate the pane-type layout, but it has the same screen-crowding issue that the side-by-side columns have.
ETA: I have considered using strong color-coding as an alternative. Something like they do here: http://www.triplify.com/search.php?q=test+this+out. But, the difference between a Google search result and a Yahoo search result is less important than the distinction between a music track (something I can play) and an artist (something I cannot play directly, but "contains" albums), and an album ("contains" tracks that I can play). I fear that strong color-coding may not be enough distinction between results to be clear.