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Search is hard

Getting search right in applications has many interesting subtleties.

One problem is that most people don’t understand boolean algebra, to the point that they don’t understand the difference between “and” and “or” in a set of search clauses. Unless your audience is highly technical, giving them a choice between “and” and “or” will only confuse them.

If you look at sites which successfully allow complex queries, they do it by using the type of UI component to express whether the choice is “and” or “or”. For example, NewEgg:


Clauses are implicitly “and”, except for sets of checkboxes. So the final search here is “Newegg Premier” AND (price $200-300 OR price $300-400).

This “implicit boolean operators” search pattern has become almost ubiquitous, though you do find the occasional site running older search software that still has drop-downs to choose “and” or “or” for each clause.

Another subtlety of search is the underlying conceptual model of the operation. To a programmer, search is straightforward: you start with an empty result set, you assemble a list of criteria, you go to the database and pick out items that match the criteria, and you add them to the result set.

That’s not the user’s conceptual model, though. To the user, you start with the set of every possible item, and you then eliminate items which don’t match the criteria. The conceptual model mirrors how you’d perform a search manually.

This becomes relevant when the user is given an advanced search interface, selects no criteria at all, and asks the system to search. Programmatically, the set of items which don’t match any criteria is the empty set; but what the user actually expects based on their mental model is all items.

Google catch this scenario by disabling the search buttons on the front page until the user types some text. They also ignore empty search string submissions using the Enter key. Interestingly, they leave the Search button visibly enabled, even though it doesn’t work. It would certainly be possible to have the button visibly disabled until the search text field contained a non-empty string; presumably they’ve done A/B testing that demonstrated that buttons initially being disabled led to user confusion.

I initially considered catching the “no criteria” case and redirecting the user to the browse UI instead. On reflection, though, I realized that selecting no criteria and hitting “Search” was a legitimate thing to do. The use case is “find out what the search results page will look like, then decide how many criteria I need to specify”.

Not a hard problem from a technical point of view, but I thought it showed an interesting subtlety involved in getting search right.