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We have a web product that displays "widgets" in a table. Each row has the name of the widget along with other attributes such as color and size. In order to keep a manageable number of columns, we chose to omit certain attributes from the table.

We want to allow users to search on everything in the table along with attributes that aren't visible in the table. The search behavior is filtering rather than a results set. In other words, you type in a search term and the rows in the table disappear.

So, when searching, is it odd to display a widget whose attribute is not visible in the table? Also, for the search help flyout, is it good to explain this to the user?

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No, it's not odd and happens quite often. For example, let's say you browse an online book store and look for a ravioli recipe. You probably won't get many books called ravioli or that have that word in a visible place, but you may get results like Italian Cuisine or Mediterranean Recipes or whatever. This is very common when using e-commerce scripts, you can "stuff" products with keywords in order to provide more searchable results

However, the above being said, it's a bit frustrating if I look for "ravioli" and after getting the result and maybe clicking on it to get a expanded view, I don't see the word ravioli anywhere. As an user, I may wonder "do they REALLY have the ravioli recipe I'm looking for or is this just a keyword? what if I buy the book and the recipe isn't there?". So it's better to have that information somewhere, in an easy to find and see place. You can do this by offering expanded views, or go to a detail page, or have a default set of variables in your widget, then a conditional set, like this (warning: brutal pseudo code ahead):

if $result=true and $in_default_variable
    echo ('default variables goes here')
else if $result=true and !$in_default_variable
   echo ('extended variables')

of course, extended variables could be a different set, or you could automatically scroll to where the search term is found on your widget

Please consider that you provide no information and your widget could be almost anything, so you may need require adjustments, but hope this is of help for you

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No,

And it's pretty common too.

Many times a system of search results will show a result set based on instances of words that aren't necessarily evident to the user when looking at the listed results.

Some examples

Ebay, with their 'search description too' option. This allows the user go through hidden fields from the context of a results list to find things that will also be of interest to them.

Then there's a counter example, the now mostly redundant practice keyword stuffing, where SEO technicians would deliberately add popular keywords into irrelevant results in order to have them rank higher (this is a dark version of this pattern, if you like).

Some ideas to make it more usable

  • give users the opportunity to remove those results (like eBay, with their 'search description' option)
  • make sure you actually do show the hidden fields somewhere, like on the individual result page
  • tell users where you found the result, i.e. 'your term was found in field x'
  • definitely explain the mechanism somewhere, with feedback as mentioned above, but also in more detail in a help popup or similar, as you mention
  • give the user the option to view that field if they want to
  • when they do view the full details of the result, give them the option to highlight the terms
  • but, there are some issues with search term highlighting, such as readability, and confusion between it and other page highlighting, make sure a clear option exists to turn it off!
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    hey toni, thanks for answering this. i really like the first bullet point you have here!
    – meepsh
    Jul 17 '15 at 15:21
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Yes.

It depends if you search or filter. You correctly said you are filtering rather than searching. So, it would confuse the user to see an entry which has no visible matches. All the more, as this filtering is usually completed with highlighting the matching search term in the results, we have nothing to highlight in this case, so users are going to ask themselves why is this entry made it through the filter.

One more aspect. I think that users would like this attribute and use it to hide columns they do not want to be included in the search, for any reason (performance, reducing the number of resulted entries, etc.).

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I will share my experience as a user first. I browse https://developer.apple.com/videos/wwdc/ a lot of times to watch wwdc videos. To reach the content of my interest fast I search the page for a keyword. Now in most of the cases I find more results than number of words related to my keyword appear on the screen. Obviously they are hidden in the table somewhere but to my despair I don't know where. This is really an awkward situation for me. I will be happy to see the rows highlighted that have the related keywords in them.

This might be a good idea to put hidden content in the search results but it should not confuse your user. And this confusion can be avoided by highlighting the row containing the hidden content.

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