Nothing quite epitomises a design pattern that we, the people who’ve been around on the internet for a fairly long time, have taken for granted like search does. Google was our gateway to the internet for the longest time, so much so that the address bar in our browsers became the “omnibox”.
Yet the cornerstone of my study was the belief that since the Next Billion had never really used a computing device in their lives, we needed to examine the very core of our assumptions. This led me to question whether search, which several applications use as a key navigational experience, was something this demographic found intuitive.
How I designed the test
All of my tests were designed to have subjects, who were people who had never used a smartphone in their lives, perform tasks that they already do in their lives. In the case of search, I provided them with a prototype of a contacts application (as visible on the left), and asked them to call a friend named Ramesh.
There were over a hundred contacts that were loaded alphabetically, and the subjects were sufficiently comfortable with reading English to recognise the name. The goal was to observe how would they make the call: would they scroll down all the way, or would they use the fairly standard search button in the application’s toolbar?
Each test subject chose to scroll down all the way. Even on second attempts, when they had realised just how long it took to scroll down. When asked to do the same on their own featurephones, they did the same — they would scroll down using the up and down keys. The rare person used the T9 keyboard to filter straight to the required contact by typing out their name.
When asked if they had any specific way to get around this cumbersome experience on their featurephones, they pointed to the ability to speed dial for family members or visit the call log for recent conversations. And as I showed them the search capability, they were intrigued but not overly thrilled — for most, typing accurately on a screen was not a simple task. Those who had done filtering with T9 on their featurephones saw the similarity between their past behavior.
Great Navigation Without Search
During the course of my research, I had the pleasure to meet the people behind FastFilmz, a startup in India that provides a streaming service for movies in Telugu and Tamil. While their key offering is reduced bandwidth consumption through compression, several design choices stood out to me.
The one that I’d like to touch upon in this post is their navigation. FastFilmz realized that their user base tends to follow specific movie-stars, and based their primary navigation around them. They don’t even have a search functionality in their application and neither have users in their studies asked for it.
Providing a great navigational experience through a lot of content can be a challenging task. If your design relies heavily on search, helping make it more obvious than an icon in the toolbar would be an important first step.
However, keeping in mind the technical difficulty of building a decent search engine that accounts for things like spelling errors, you realize that it can only ever play as back up. The focus instead needs to be on understanding your user’s mental model, like FastFilmz, and creating a primary navigation that works well for it. Which is easier said than done, but that’s how we earn our bread and butter.