How to deal with ‘too much information’: where should we put search refinement facets?

Swinburne Library is in the process of making some changes; we’re replacing our library system with a fancy new one, and as the user-experience-person-in-situ it is up to me to make suggestions for the search and discovery interface our users will see.  Some of those decisions I will blog about here, and search facet placement is one of them.

Search facets are one of the search tools that I think will be most instrumental in making stuff easier to find (and the OCLC report (PDF) on user expectations vs. librarian expectations suggests library users feel the same way). Facets are the little categories you see on search interfaces that let you narrow down your search results to things that are more relevant to you; they started out in tools with well-defined metadata (like eBay and Amazon, and even some of the newer library systems) and they are slowly working their way into searches with less-well-defined metadata, like Google.

With anything new like this, though, you have to figure out where in the search interface to put it.  So far I have seen facets placed to the left of search results:

facets to the left of search results

to the right of search results:

Facets to the right

and below search results:

Facets below search results

At Swinburne, we talked a bit about facet placement, and in all likelihood ours will be on the left.

So, what are the arguments for and against each position?

  • Facets below search results: When facets are below search results, they don’t distract the user when they are viewing search results, which is a good thing.  However, given that the vast majority of users don’t scroll all the way down, and only look at the first couple of pages of search results (and they look more at the first results on these pages), placing facets below search result is pretty likely to mean that users don’t see them or use them.  This likelihood is reinforced by the fact that this is a significantly uncommon location for facets, so users won’t think to look for them here.
  • Facets to the right of search results: From a user-centred-design purist standpoint, in my opinion the right-hand position for facets is probably the best in an interface where the language is read from left to right.  This position means that user see search result first, and then facets if the search results don’t contain anything immediately useful.  Given the number of commonly used interfaces that put facets on the left, however, this could be a risky proposal.
  • Facets to the left of search results: This is what Google have gone with (possibly because their advertising is on the right).  It is also common in other commonly-used information seeking interfaces, such as eBay, Dymocks (in Australia) and Amazon (for the US and the UK). Use of these interfaces will train users to look to the left for facets; and it would seem that at least a small sample of users have already developed this preference for left-hand search facets.

Swinburne has a real opportunity with this project to provide a search interface for our users that is not “slow motion search, typical library“; however, to do this we must pay as much attention as we can to our users.  Putting the search facets to the left is just one of the decisions we will make with the users in mind, and I hope to blog about more in the future.

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1 Response to “How to deal with ‘too much information’: where should we put search refinement facets?”



  1. 1 Search isn’t king anymore: Google recognises browsing « Dana’s user experience blog Trackback on Wednesday, May 12, 2010 at 5:36 pm

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