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Discovery Search: When Recommendations Ruin the Search Bar

Graeme Fulton
Graeme Fulton
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3 pixelart magnifiers in a row - the 3rd one is largest with the lense of the glass blown apart and scattered

What happened to a normal search bar? Tapping the search button nowadays doesn't go straight to a search - it often opens a screen of 'recommended content'. It's a common pattern across mobile apps that can either be useful, or so distracting that you forget what you wanted to search for in the first place. Below are some examples:

Recommended Content: 'Searchbait' on Instagram

Here's Instagram, for example – one of the best examples for distracting the user from searching whilst on a search page:

How can you not tap on a recommended video - we're only human!

The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity. Nir Eyal

It's like 'searchbait' - filling the search page with clickbait material. The intent clearly isn't to help you find something, but to encourage you to spend more time inside the app, and probably to click more ads. The recommendations on Instagram are junk videos from people you probably don't even know - a far cry from what the app was originally created for.

Search Suggestions (Spotify)

In Spotify, the recommendations are at least related to search, so can act as inspiration. For example, you might be searching for a genre or activity such as 'running playlist', or 'music for writing'. Seeing your 'top genres' and popular categories could help:

For me, the problem here is that when I actually do want to browse and discover, I can't find the discovery page - there's no clear way to get to it, other by tapping the search icon. Sometimes that just doesn't connect in my brain.

Suggestive Search (Trainline)

Thankfully, a related content section can genuinely be useful, and can improve user experience (in terms of helping a user reach a goal). Take the train booking app, Trainline, for example. When you hit search, you're also shown previous trips you've taken. Generally when you book a train, you often take the same route, so this actually helps you search, or lets you skip actually typing in the input fields.

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Suggestive Search vs Discovery Page

The 'suggested searches' on Trainline are similar to historical or autsuggestions in search bars, like on Google:

A google search starting with Instagram is - showing suggestions such as Instagram is dead, instagram is toxic
Instagram is...toxic

This type of suggested content actually fits the context of the action. There is a contextual icon next to each suggestion, showing that when you tap it, you'll search for it.

Animation of someone typing in a search box, with search suggestions popping up
Best Practices: Designing autosuggest experiences
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Discovery Page: Addictive or Useful?

Maybe the meaning of search is changing to discover as we get used to seeing this pattern more and more. But the intentions behind it seem more business motivated than to help a user. Despite giving us more ways to enjoy watching dancing videos, these patterns prey on human instincts, and don't actually help achieve any goal.

Most people don’t want to acknowledge the uncomfortable truth that distraction is always an unhealthy escape from reality. Nir Eyal

As I work on this new Prototypr platform, this is all something I've been thinking a lot about. Forcing users to make extra clicks can decrease your bounce rate, and adding Infinite scroll to make people stay longer can give you some great vanity metrics, but is it really benefiting the reader?

That's it for this article, but below are a couple more examples just for reference. 👋

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More Search/Discover Examples

Here's a couple more search/discover pages based around promoting trending news:

Trending News (Twitter)

Twitter show popular hashtags and trending news from all over their app:

Trending Today (Reddit)

Like Twitter, Reddit show what's trending today, surfacing the more reputable news more than the garbage on Instagram.

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Written by

Graeme Fulton

Making Prototypr and

Creator of 💌 @Letter_HQ and @Prototypr

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