Findability and Usability: The Cognition of Searching

Findability is essential to usability.  But how do individuals search for and locate things?  It turns out, our brains engage in two processes to find items.  Understanding them is key to creating findable features and usable designs.


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Guided Searching

The mind searches based on familiarity.  If we’ve used something before, we have a mental picture – or model – of what that item looks like.  When searching for known items, our minds scan our surroundings or screens for something that matches these models.  This guided searching is why similar products in a marketplace look so much alike – prior experiences have shaped what individuals look for when using something. 


Consider word processing software.  Why does the “bold text” feature in Open Office look similar to that in Microsoft Word?  Because users have created mental models for what these features should look like based on prior experiences with programs like Word.  They are now conditioned to search for such designs when using similar technologies.  Features that do not resemble these expectations will be more difficult to find and make products more difficult to use.


Random Searching

Finding new things is a different process because we have no mental model to guider our searching.  Rather, we look for items that stand out from their surroundings.  It is contrast – or difference from surroundings – that draws our attention during such processes.  This is random searching.


With certain items, there might be no prior product that filled a market space, so users have no mental models to guide searching.  Using these products means making feature easy to find, and contrast is key.  Central feature must stand out from their surroundings so users can locate them.  This involves

·       Using different colors to maximize contrast and distinguish features from a background (e.g., a red button on a black background)

·       Limiting the features available to minimize the things users focus on (e.g., 5 or fewer icons)

·       Placing features in prominent places (the center of a screen) where users look first

These strategies can help individuals find features when using new products and make new items easier to use.

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Identifying Features

In guided searching, users know what they are looking for and know what the items does.  So, when searching for the “bold text” feature, once I encounter it, prior experience tells me how to use it. 


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With random searching, finding find a feature doesn’t mean knowing how to use it.  Rather, features in new products should contain some something like text embedded in an icon to indicate what the feature does (e.g., embedding the words “upload files” into the icon for uploading files). 


Final Thoughts

We need to find features to use products effectively.  The more we understand the dynamics of the mind’s searching processes, the better we can address usability when designing products. 


About Author

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Kirk St. Amant 
Kirk St. Amant directs the Center for Health and Medical Communication (CHMC) at Louisiana Tech University (USA) and is an Adjunct Professor of International Health and Medical Communication with the University of Limerick (Ireland) and a Research Fellow and Adjunct Professor of User Experience Design with the University of Strasbourg (France). 



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