99 problems with data filtering

If you’re having navigation problems we feel bad for you son. As UX designers we have 99 solutions, and data filtering is one.

We recently underwent a redesign of Snowbird Wilderness Outfitter’s navigation, and while we didn’t quite hit the 99 mark, I’d like to share some of the challenges faced and solutions applied along the way to help you think about information on your website.

Problem: People can’t find what they’re looking for

A general search bar is not always the solution. If you have a large database of content, providing a more specific way for someone to limit their search will help them get into your content faster. Sometimes people have specific parameters in mind – for example “I attended a women’s conference last summer and I want to re-listen to the talk given by Ms. X.” Having a “Speaker” filter so a user can limit their search to just “Ms. X” will help them find what they are looking for. There are many ways to slice up your data for better searching – media type, author, date, keyword, topic, and event type being a few examples. Each database is unique and will need a unique solution to cater to your audience.

Snowbird's current resources search filter

Snowbird’s resources filter before the redesign

Problem: There are more filters than content

While filters are useful, you can have too many. If the options overwhelm the content, they will overwhelm the user – too many options can paralyze. Think about how your audience is likely to search and narrow your filters to what’s essential. Other considerations when creating filters are how it will work on mobile, and whether the filter should be on every page or just the landing page.

Problem: There are little or no descriptions in the post

Another problem may be that there are few or no descriptions in the post. This is especially common for audio or video files. It’s easy to think – “Hey, I’ve uploaded my video, now my job is done”. However, everything within a video or audio file is like hidden treasure. Adding content to the post (including keywords) provides a treasure map guiding your audience to the treasure. Making sure the title and description of each content piece is clear not only helps users searching within your site find your content, but also improves your search engine findability.

Problem: Is Filtering or Searching more Useful?

The debate to prioritize filtering or searching is a common one. Some people prefer to search by keyword first (AKA a general search bar) and then narrow their results through a filter (as seen on Amazon.com). Others prefer to see the filters up front so they know their options (as seen on REI.com). They each have benefits and drawbacks. Amazon allows someone who has something specific in mind to search right away and get to what they’re looking for. The REI site allows someone to generally browse and slowly narrow the results to what they’re interested in. Both are successful but hardly something easy to decide on.

Amazon's keyword centric search vs. REI's topic-based search with subsequent filtering

Amazon’s keyword centric search (top) vs. REI’s topic-based search with subsequent filtering

Problem: Building a functionally complex website on a small budget

Cost comes both as hitting one’s wallet as the time in their day. Filtering systems should take into account the time required to maintain them by your staff – a system is only as good as the data put into it. Having many filters means organizing each piece of content according to a well understood cataloging system. As creative problem solvers, we always look for ways to provide solutions that fit within budget. We want to build functional and useful websites; if the client doesn’t have the resources required to feed the system, that’s a design flaw.

Finding Solutions

Collaboration, just like life is messy. It takes patience on both sides.

Collaboration with our clients is a key factor in all our projects concluding satisfactorily. We expect our clients to bring their hopes, fears, and dreams to the table and we do our best to listen and understand their world. Once we understand the problems, we can problem-solve unique solutions.

With Snowbird, as often is the case, we ended up with solutions that will benefit the reader while creating a solution that aides the staff. We streamlined the search filters requested in order to not overwhelm their users, but kept the essential ones to ensure a natural system that would fit their users. The client spent time making sure their categories were consistent and clear, so that browsing options weren’t overwhelming. We created a hybrid filter and search user-interface. The final kinks are still being worked out, but here’s a sneak peak of the new design:

Snowbird new resources search filter

Snowbird’s new resources search filter

What about you?

How easy is it to find resources in your website’s database? Put yourself in your audience’s shoes and try to navigate your site. Looking through their eyes may open up your own to interface challenges you didn’t see before. We’d love to help you solve your own 99 problems! Don’t hesitate to give us a shout.

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With a passion for communicating through design and an OCD level of pixel-perfection, Hannah continually seeks to refine the poetry of her code.
May 23rd, 2016 // // ,
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99 problems artwork