Search has become a key component of growing online platforms and their knowledge bases. Is your search enabling your users to find what they need?

Your users need guidance

When you deliver a software product like an online platform your users need to learn it. They need to become proficient using your tools. Obviously the best way to achieve that is to have a great UX and some inline help and tips. But in case of complicated products, like Google Adwords for example, sooner or later users will need to reach out to the documentation.

Your users will look for information on how your product works, how they can achieve their results and solve their problems. So they'll look for answers. Building a great knowledge base for your product is a very smart thing to do. It's not an easy task and it may be a big effort. On top of that UX folks say that there are two kinds of people: ones that browse around and ones that default to search.

With time documentation grows in size and people need search in order to navigate it effectively. If search is returning poor results, you're probably loosing money or even business.

Example

I went on to search information about an online text editor on two websites: apple.com and microsoft.com. They both deliver online versions of their products that work in web browsers:

 "pages online" search results on apple.com

"pages online" search results on apple.com

 "word online" search results on microsoft.com

"word online" search results on microsoft.com

As you can see Apple displayed nothing related to the online version of their editor, whereas Microsoft understood my search intent accurately.

What your users do when search sucks

Unfortunately, through years of using online searches on websites and in apps we've learned that search sucks. You all know this experience where you enter your search query into the search box and get a list of results that have nothing to do with what you've been looking for.

What user does in such situation?

  • They contact customer service. Either by phone or email they'll reach out to your staff with questions they could have solved on their own. This is a direct and measurable cost. Especially when you operate at big scale.
  • They search the internet. In this case you loose the touch with your users. You don't know what exactly did they look for. They're also on their own in the wild world of the web, where they'll encounter answers of varying quality. This may have a negative impact on your brand.
  • They complain about your product. If they grow frustrated with their inability to solve their problems they'll complain online. Not everyone is going to call your customer support line to get help. Some people will tell everyone they can how disappointed they are.

They give up

This may have the biggest impact on your business. One of the very probable scenarios is that your users will just stop trying to do what they want to do. Even if it's possible. This may be the biggest problem with poor knowledge base and its search. Users may stop spending money on your product. They'll look for alternatives. Or they'll get less value than they could. Because in the long run if the user doesn't get the value your product could deliver, they'll eventually give up. It doesn't matter how good your product is if users don't know that!

It's best pictured by this scene from Silicon Valley series: https://youtu.be/Ml92QEqE-RQ

Allow your users to become experts

In the end your goal is this: make your users superheroes in using your products. Just like Adobe couldn't have imagined the things graphic designers will create with it, just the same way your product can be used in various ways you haven't thought of. But in order for this to happen they need to be able to master your tools, to be able to find answers quickly and make a very efficient use of their time with your product.

Smart search is more than good result list

Smart search also means easy retrieval of relevant tips and news articles in the current user context. It means finding relevant related knowledge base articles. It means clever tagging and categorisation of your articles. Search has become a data provider.

Now go and watch your users using your search. Just be prepared to be surprised ;)