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  • Writer's pictureTingbin Tang

Browse, Index, Search, and Consult

Updated: Sep 9, 2018

With e-commerce becomes more and more popular and become part of people’s daily life, it brings lot conveniences to consumers, that they can simply stay at home and click a few buttons (over the phone or PC) and then the merchandise will be delivered in front of their doors. Besides, there are even much more choices of products than what a supermarket can offer. But then here comes a new problem, with so many products and information are flooded on the Internet, how can people find the right merchandise he/she is looking for?

1. Casual way – Browsing

There are several ways have been used to help users find the merchandise they are looking for. The first way is browsing. Browsing is a quite leisurely and casual way, and it is quite natural, just like how people doing window shopping.

Dictionary . com defines browsing as "to glance at random". However, it is not exactly random, sometimes people may have a purpose in mind, or roughly an idea. So in that case, browsing is to scan the information, maybe not very carefully, to find a pattern or to find a match. Even though quite often, some people may end up in buying something quite different from what he/she was looking for at the beginning.

Sometimes people may browse without an exact purpose, but just for leisure. As they said, to “kill time”. However, something of their interest might catch their eyeballs, and end up in another consumption activity. I would say, many irrational spending happens during a browsing activity.

Browsing is a lower cognitive load activity compare to other methods I am going to introduce. In order to help people browses more easily and enjoyable, many layouts of information have been used. E.g. water fall layouts, grid layouts, carousels layouts, infinity scroll, or by pages, each way has its good and bad. No matter how, the goal is to make users be able to browse happily, easily, freely, and relaxing. After all, they all like to attract users to stay with their site or app, like to encourage more engagement, more involvement, and keep a higher retention rate.

2. Old-fashioned way - indexing through the directories

I call indexing the old-fashioned way, because people have been using this way to organize and help people find information many many years ago. Just think about how people used to find a book in a library, and checking through the paper cards with directories.

When we move to the internet era, such method has been moved to the online world as well. In order for users to find the right product he/she is looking for, the site needs to provide lists/directories arranged usually in alphabetical order of some specified datum (such as categories, product name, or manufacturing geography, etc.).

At the beginning of Internet, Yahoo was using such way of indexing through the directory to help web users find the right internet information they are looking for. Users can click on the directory according to their needs and go deep into the next subdirectory to find the information they need. This method is convenient for finding a certain kind of information collection, and can be used to gradually deepen the query; but it is not good at accurately locate the right information.

The challenge for this method is how to design the directory of categories. For e-commerce, if use this way, firstly the site need to categorize the merchandises. However, I have played card sorting with many people in the past, but it is hard to find a unified understanding among people. Sometimes, even the same set of products, different people may put them into different categories. That is why indexing is not good for finding a precisely result.

Besides, since users will have to click on the name of the category to be queried; then go deep into a fine class to find it until the satisfied, the retrieval speed is slow. So preciseness and speed are two weakness of indexing. Maybe because of these reasons, nowadays, even though some site still has it, but not many people actually using it. However, for many site like Amazon, Alibaba, there are still a reason that they have to keep it. After all, it is still a good way to keep things organized, and there is still an amount of users may use that to locate a product.

3. Powerful tool – search

Search is a powerful tool. Users just need to submit their keywords, then search engine can return a large number of results. These results are sorted in a line according to the relevance of the search questions. The information contains a mix of texts, images, links and so on.

Good thing about “search” is that, it is so powerful, after input a keyword, it can present to users all the information that might related. Challenge is, then how do the system determine what is “relevant”? In another word, how do the system present the right information to the users just after some keywords? As human languages, some keywords normally are not enough to clearly explain an idea. So how can a search engine exactly understand people? Especially even the same keyword, different people or at different circumstance, may be used for different meanings.

Companies like Google keep optimizing the algorithm, use AI technologies to best understand users. But no matter how, it is still different for a system to provide the exactly right result with just a few keywords. Users may get bored to keep looking at the lists of result. To solve this, now besides general search, Google also has categorized search, like search for images, videos, news, books, finance, shopping, etc. That helps, but still has too many results instead of the exactly right one that user was looking for.

In the field of e-commerce, even though it is narrowed a little bit compare to Google search, such problem still exists. How to understand user has never been an easy task. Filters have been used to better understand different user’s preferences. Sorting of various dimensions, including rankings of ratings, sales, reviews, prices, have also been used to help users find the right product. Based on users’ browser history, recommendation has also been used to better satisfy users. In all, just do the best to satisfy users with the “right” product.

Some apps allow users to do "image search"; by taking a photo or scan the bar code. This can be a quick and quick and precise way to find the right product, though the pre-condition is that users have this product/package available for photo taking.

4. Personalized way – consult

Compare to other three, consult is not popular used in the internet applications, but in reality, it is always the best way to consult an expert for a quick and precise answer. Even though the knowledge base of an expert may not be as large as a search engine, but it is always more personalized, and the expert can quickly understand what was asking for and what was the actual needs.

When I was little, there was a small convenience store near my community, and there was only one owner plus clerk there. She knows everyone in that town, and friendly to everyone. It was not a self pick store, every time when we need something, we will ask her, and she will take the merchandise out from the shelf and bring to us. That has never bother us, instead, it was very pleasant experience. Even today, although the supermarket has a lot more choices, I still miss that type of shopping experiences in the past. No matter at Homedepot or Walmart or Lowes today, people still can see such things happens everyday. Customers will directly go to a staff and ask for immediate assistant.

Whenever customer is looking for a specific product, and if he/she is in a rush, the most comfortable and functional way is still to ask an experienced staff there, regardless how well the supermarket has categorized and organized the merchandises. Besides product name, product feature, consumers can also describe the color or material or the size to the staff, so he/she can quickly get served with the right product he/she was looking for. Sometimes, especially with some personal relationships, if the store staff know the customer well, such experience will be even much more convenient and pleasing.

However, not many websites/apps have move such offline experience to their online shopping service. Some did, but was not successful. For example, I used to try some dating/matching site when I was still a single. But I even could not be patient enough to finish the registration. In order to provide a good match, those sites/apps provided such consult flow, and they asked users many questions. Of course, it is understandable, that the better they understand the user, the better match they can suggest. But, so many questions just kept the customers away from them.

So how we provide the best consult online experience? As mentioned, one way maybe is to combine search bar with filters and sorting. With search bar to get the keywords, with the filters and sorting to get the preferences. Another way, I would think it is to ask users to input or speak a sentences instead of a few keywords. “I am looking for a pair of pink shoes for my 5-year-old daughter for outdoor activities”; this sentence of course is much clear than a keyword search of “toddler shoes”. If the customer missing some characteristic description, then the system can follow one or two questions to clarify. Just like what is happening in people’s daily life when we do offline shopping. Will this be a better solution than current methods? I look forward to finding out more through my projects and usability testing.

Maybe live chat online currently is serving such way? But that will increase the operating costs. Besides, an operator has to handle many consumers over the internet, it is still hard for them to really understand each individual.

Some voice assistance, e.g. Amazon Alexa can also be treated as part of consult service, but it still quite rely on the development of technology, which, is not intelligent enough yet.

In all, it is all about how to really understand customer needs, and how to provide the best service, convenient, efficient and enjoyable.

For some house wives, when they are relaxing and surfing online, browsing might be the best method to serve them; for some rigorous scholastic person, indexing with directories might be a good choice; for people who want to find out as many as possible results, search with keywords is always there to help; for people who is in a rush and has a clearly targeted product in mind, consult will serve him/her the best. As a business owner, it is always about positioning target users and define right strategies to achieve the best business result.

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