My client is arguing for the label on a search field to say 'Look Up', rather than 'Search', because he feels it is more accurate for the application users. I think a search is a search and should be named just that. Thoughts?

  • 4
    We can offer thoughts but without more context, it's just our thoughts vs. your client. Can you provide more details. What kind of interaction is this? Who are the users? Are you going to do any user interviews/testing/research? etc
    – DA01
    Commented Apr 22, 2014 at 17:54
  • 2
    The client is not always right, but he is the one signing your check. Would you rather be right or get paid? ;) The two terms are nearly identical; I don't think it's worth arguing over.
    – Brian S
    Commented Apr 22, 2014 at 22:11
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    A lookup connotes the presence of an index. Lookup a business number, or a phone number, or an entry in the dictionary. All of these instances are low effort: either enter the index or get close and use the order of the index to identify the target entry. Searching connotes a less procedural or algorithmic to identifying the target.
    – Hugh
    Commented Apr 23, 2014 at 2:39
  • Search, you may not know the format or outcome. Whereas Look Up, you know something about the format and data you want.
    – JW_
    Commented Apr 23, 2014 at 12:50
  • The conversation is interesting, however I wanted to put this out there: if I am paying for the website, it will say what I want it to say. Don't argue your perspective too much with your client: does it really matter to you? Your paycheck will cash just the same, no matter what the label says.
    – Chris
    Commented Apr 23, 2014 at 20:55

9 Answers 9


They both mean the same thing according to the free dictionary, but I think there are subtle differences. Definition of "Look up"

Searching is a more general term -- you may not be sure what you will find when you search, or how many things you will find in your result set, but looking up is something you do when you know a record exists and you want to locate one in particular.

If I were to do a public records search on a person, I might think of that as looking them up. If I were searching for pictures of that person, I would think of it as a search, because there might be bazillions of photos of that person and everyone else with the same name, so the difference is one of expected result.

Lookup = 1 good match. Search = many possible options.

  • 4
    I'm curious which one is the right one for OP... Commented Apr 23, 2014 at 14:36

Thoughts you say... Well, Why not do an A/B testing with the label options. At the end of the day its not what the client / developers / designers want - its about how your end-user interprets it.

  • Will A/B testing provide a useful result if it is an internal enterprise software? They have to use it, even if they first need to ask someone how it works. Commented Apr 24, 2014 at 16:15
  • 1
    Internal or not, digital products are built for end-users. Data driven designs are "almost" always efficient because its engineered to fit the end-user and not some fat corporate guy's liking. Ofc its not mandatory, its only a means to an end.
    – Rayraegah
    Commented Apr 24, 2014 at 23:13
  • Ok, but could you describe what exactly should be tested? A simple "clicked or not" test doesn't seem to be appropriate. Commented Apr 25, 2014 at 5:41
  • You'll have test till statistical significance. How many people completed the search operation successfully / found what they looking for using the control and the alternate version.
    – Rayraegah
    Commented May 2, 2014 at 23:42

There's the (loose) technical distinction between "search" and a LUT (lookup table).

"Search" describes a process where arbitrary input is used to search across relevant data for partial matches, in order to give back a result set for the user to choose from.

When using a lookup table, the input is already the key, which will then allow you to retrieve the whole relevant data from the index.

So the first is bringing you closer, whereas the latter will already retrieve the right thing.


Imo, there is a substantial difference between Search and Loop Up.

  • Looking up is what you do with a dictionary.
  • Searching is what yo do when you lost you car keys.

Part of the difference is that looking up is related to finding back information of which yo know it exists. It will almost certainly give you 1 result, searching will give you 0, 1 or more results. Searching is less related to finding information.

Let's see if that is correct...


I feel that this comes down purely to the content of the site. Even though it's as though you are splitting hairs between "Look Up" and "Search" I would have to say there are times where I could see preferring one over the other. For example if you were creating a site almost like a library or something with text documents than I might use the "Look Up" as a label. However, just about for anything else "Search" is going to be the staple and overall is the universal word used when creating a search field. Take into account the type of content that will be searched for when making this final decision.


I think they are not the same thing, you lookup an entry in an index (even if with many results), while you search for text inside the contents. You lookup a word in a dictionary, you search on google. You don't lookup on google and search in a dictionary (unless you are searching freely inside the word definitions too). So I think that it really depends on what your application does. More dictionary or more free fulltext search?

  • On dictionary.reference.com they use the label "search" in the search entry field label. The label "Look up" isn't being utilized here or on several other dictionary websites I have visited, so it works against your attempt to distinguish between the two terms. Is a user really going to being confused by seeing the predominantly used "Search" label, with the question, "Why doesn't this say 'Look Up'?
    – Dmacatude
    Commented Apr 30, 2014 at 15:27
  • @Dmacatude No, he won't. I'm pretty sure he/she will survive. We are not talking about any dramatically important or fundamental issues here. "Search" will do. "look up" will do too. Both are understandable in this context. Nevertheless there is this small distinction between the two. You do not look up in a room for something, you do not "search" if you are selecting from a list (see Classroom look up). You may either look up or search a word in a website, but it may be slightly more "look uppy" or slightly more "searchy" depending on the way the site works.. :) Commented Apr 30, 2014 at 15:50

Familiarity is more important than semantics here; in the words of Usability expert Jakob Nielsen:

Call a spade a spade, not a digging implement. Certainly not an excavation solution. Many marketers like to embellish products to make them seem grander than traditional fare. But customers define their needs in known terms, so be sure to use them, even if you don't think they're exciting. The very fact that a word is unexciting indicates that it's frequently used.

And of course, it should go without saying that familiarity aids usability. In his 10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design, Jakob Nielsen states:

The system should speak the users' language, with words, phrases and concepts familiar to the user, rather than system-oriented terms. Follow real-world conventions, making information appear in a natural and logical order.


I agree with others above, it's all about the users... not you, the client, or anyone but the actual users. Search is a more universal term that will be understood by people of varying backgrounds and ethnicities. The term "look up" is more colloquial and has potential to be lost on those from other countries. However, with the right audience, the term "look up" can feel more human and familiar, thus putting users at ease and allowing them to acheive the desired action with more confidence/ease.

And as always, when in doubt, put it in front of actual users and see how it performs. Test, test, test.


Is your client a finance person? We encounter that a lot in banking... "Excel" in more ways than one. I usually confront the client with his/her love for excel, saying that it is a great tool, yet we have different goals. And show some benchmark they would be using and loving: Ipad, Iphone, facebook, gmail... If you are making a mobile excel - like app, then go along with it :) If s/he is not convinced, then let it go.

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