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Designing for faceted search

This article appears in the issue March 2009 (100 Companies) [Volume 18, Issue 3]
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Faceted search, or guided navigation, has become the de facto standard for e-commerce and product-related Web sites, from big box stores to product review sites. But e-commerce sites aren’t the only ones joining the facets club. Other content-heavy sites such as media publishers (e.g. The Financial Times), libraries (such as NCSU Libraries) and even non-profits (Urban Land Institute) are tapping into faceted search to make their often broad range of content more findable. Essentially, faceted search has become so ubiquitous that users are not only getting used to it, they are coming to expect it.

Faceted search lets users refine or navigate a collection of information by using a number of discrete attributes—the so-called facets. A facet represents a specific perspective on content that is typically clearly bounded and mutually exclusive. The values within a facet can be a flat list that allows only one choice (such as a list of possible shoe sizes) or a hierarchical list that allows you to drill down through multiple levels (for example, product types, Computers > Laptops). The combination of all facets and values is often called a faceted taxonomy. Those faceted values can be added directly to content as metadata or extracted automatically using text mining software.

The power of faceted search lies in the ability of users to create their own custom navigation by combining various perspectives rather than forcing them through a specific path. Think of a cookbook: Authors have to organize the recipes in one way only—by course or by main ingredient, etc.—and users have to work with whatever choice of organizing principle that has been made, regardless of how it fits their particular style of searching. An online recipe site using faceted search can allow users to decide how they’d like to navigate to a specific recipe, offering multiple entry points and successive refinements. Figure 1 on page 15 (KMWord, Vol 18 #3) shows how facets can help pinpoint content very precisely through the combination of perspectives. Just three facets with five terms each can represent 243 possible combinations.

As users combine facet values, the search engine is really launching a new search based on the selected values, which allows the users to see how many documents are left in the set corresponding to each remaining facet choice. So while users think they are navigating a site, they are really doing the dreaded advanced search—without the scary librarians-only interface.

Design don’t and dos

Now that faceted search interfaces are so prevalent, patterns are emerging that establish good design. If you are considering embarking on a faceted search implementation, here are five important points to consider:

  • DON’T go crazy with facets. Information overload is bad enough in general—don’t add to it by presenting users with 15 different facets. That is hardly "narrowing," and users will generally not scroll too far down beyond the initial screen to locate your more obscure facets.
    But how do you make sure your facets are focused and helpful?
  • DO base facets on key use cases and known user access patterns. A little bit of research goes a long way in identifying key ways users navigate and search your site. Analyzing search logs, evaluating competitor sites, and user research and testing are great ways to figure out what key access points users are looking for. Interviewing as few as 10 users will often give you great insight into what the facet structure should be. Don’t skimp on that upfront research; you’ll thank yourself later as you continuously refer back to that data while you configure your taxonomy and search engine.
  • DO order facets and values based on importance. That might sound obvious, but a lot of sites get it wrong. Not all facets are created equal: Some access points are more important than others depending on what users are doing and where they are in the site. Give them top billing because only the first few will be visible on page load. Same goes for values: Most faceted search engines will allow you to order values based on number of items in that category. This is almost always a better bet than alphabetical ordering, because it dynamically presents the most popular items at the top. When determining order for navigation, again think about your users and why they are coming to your site: Don’t obscure the big-play items in an alpha scheme.
  • DO leverage the tool to show and hide facets and values. While the free or low-cost faceted search tools don’t all offer those configuration options, more sophisticated faceted search solutions allow you to create rules to progressively disclose facets. Think of a site offering online greeting cards. While the visual theme of the card—teddy bears, a sunset, golf—might eventually be important to a user, it probably isn’t the first place they will start their search. They will likely begin with occasion (birthday, Christmas), or recipient (father, friend), and then become interested in themes further down the line. Accordingly, we might hide the "themes" facet until a user has selected an occasion or recipient. You can selectively present facets based on your understanding of your users and their typical search patterns (as mentioned in the previous "do").

Also take advantage of the search engine’s clutter-reducing features, such as the "more ... " link. That allows you to present only the most popular items and hide the rest until the user specifically requests to see them. You can also do that at the facet level, collapsing lesser-used facets to present just the category name and let users who are interested expand that facet.

Richard Tomlinson, solution architect at Endeca, advises that facet display should be dependent on the area of the site. If you are in the first few layers of your site, you should show fewer facets with more values exposed, whereas if you are deeper into product information, you should show more facets, some with values exposed and others hidden.

  • DO build your taxonomy with faceted search in mind. That is a big one, because a good taxonomy goes a long way in making a successful faceted search interface. There are some important guidelines to follow in taxonomy design. Facets need to be well defined, mutually exclusive and have clear labels. For example, having one facet called "Training" and another "Events" is confusing: Where do you put a seminar? Is it training or an event? If you have to wonder, your users will too.

The taxonomy depth (how many levels deep does it go?) and breadth (how many facets wide is it?) are other important considerations. Faceted search works better with a broad taxonomy that is relatively shallow, because that lets users combine more perspectives rather than get stuck in an eternal drill-down, which causes fatigue. The facet configuration and display rules will help you create the optimal progressive presentation of those facets so users aren’t overwhelmed with the breadth. (See Figure 2, page 15, KMWorld. Vol 18 #3.)

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