Design Patterns for Faceted Navigation

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Many moons ago, I led the creation of a faceted search system across IBM's PC catalog. Along the way, we experimented with different user experiences. I ran across an article this morning on Designing for faceted search. The salient points are contained below:

  • 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").

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