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Five Principles of Search Design

Learnings from designing for Salesforce mobile search

One of my friends, Aleena, visits the same cafe every morning. The barista remembers Aleena’s name and order, and they have the coffee waiting as soon as she gets to the cafe at exactly 8:05am. She gets to bypass the line and get her tailored order right away, so she dislikes going to any other cafe.

Whether it be coffee or searches, users develop habits. If we can predict these habits and give users what they want before they even request it, users will continue to use the product. That is what reinforces indispensability and makes a user say “I must use Salesforce” rather than “I could use Salesforce.” But, designing for customization is no easy task.

My friend may get her coffee every morning, but there are behind-the-scenes dependencies. The barista has to come into work, remember the order and the time my friend comes in, and take extra care to prepare the coffee ahead of time. Similarly, there is always more behind-the-scenes work required for designing for customization.

Salesforce builds enterprise software. I thought this simply meant there are more edge cases to consider. However, in the words of David Schultz, Senior Director of Platform UX, designing for enterprise requires a whole new thought framework:

“Designing for enterprise means being a capability designer.”

This means building for customization, while continually embedding empowerment and control into the process. In enterprise, we are designing the means to the end, but not the end itself. You have to ask yourself: is this something that a customer could use, adapt, and make their own? It is not just about making the functionality adaptive, but the look and feel as well.

After all, customers do not want canned instances of a product. While customers are looking for solutions that are quick and easy, those solutions have to fit neatly into their organization. They want to feel as if they are using an application designed specifically for them every single day.

So, how do the ideas of personalization and customization apply to search?


1. Personalized feeds are overtaking the act of searching

The narrative of how search is understood has changed dramatically. When Google first became popular, the user expectation was established: you input a search term, get a list of results, and interact with these results. Every user saw the same component: a Google search bar in the center of the page. The experience was very desktop-centric.

However, with the popularization of social media and mobile apps, the component of an application that warrants the most interaction is no longer the search bar. The bulk of the interaction occurs in a feed that is mobile-first. Even Google anticipates the end of search as we know it.

Users are no longer just searching, they are discovering what they want from a predetermined and personalized feed. Every user may be seeing the same search bar, but not the same feed. Users today expect these personalized solutions that leverage their past behavior.

In fact, during user interviewing for the Salesforce mobile application, one user stated they felt put off by the current state:

“It just didn’t feel like it was created with me in mind.”

Once a user feels disappointed or unconsidered, it is difficult to change the impression. However, we can take steps to move from a canned feel to a fresh feel. We can do this not just by transforming the experiences to be more personalized, but also by simply embedding more personal messages. A “good morning, Ambika” greeting surely cannot replace relevant search results, but it reinforces the idea that the application is tailored to the user.

Facebook drives this idea by ensuring that you are seeing content from your close friends at the top of your feed, and you might be thinking, But that’s Facebook.

The consumer space is undoubtedly a different beast than the enterprise space. But consider the words of Bret Taylor, Chief Product Officer at Salesforce:

“Many trends start at the consumer side. It is up to enterprise to transform them.”

Which brings me to my next point…


2. It doesn’t matter what space you’re working in — the consumer space is one to watch

During my exploratory interviews on mobile search, users’ statements took on a familiar structure:

“I would want something like _____, kind of like how Facebook _____.”
“I would want something like _____, kind of like how Instagram _____.”

Funnily enough, the pattern was not in the content of the user desires, but the external references they were using. All of the points of reference were social media platforms. However, we cannot simply take what the consumer space is doing. At Salesforce, we need to need to adapt it for the enterprise space. For whatever space you are in — enterprise, nonprofit — you can adapt it for your customer needs.

So how did enterprise take the idea of a feed and transform it?

Ultimately, after rounds of interviews and design studios, I converged on a feed for mobile with cards that can be swapped in and out based on user preferences, similar to widgets. You can take action from the cards, reorder the cards, create your own cards for your organization.

Cards in feed form that users can act on and modify.

My process involved taking a concept users were familiar with in the consumer space — a feed — and re-imagining it for enterprise, with the added detail of customization and user control. After all, social media has become integrated into work, with applications such as Slack and LinkedIn, so using the idea of a feed ensures user familiarity.

This idea isn’t new. Snapchat focuses on a stream of video content, Instagram focuses on a feed of photo content. Even Salesforce has Chatter as its own social platform, which incorporates a feed. However, as enterprise, we need to support multiple types of content in the feed for it to be useful: dashboards, social platforms, recent records, notifications, reminders, tasks, etc. This is where the opportunity for transformation lies.


3. Support the need to discover, act, and reuse

I chose the modified feed solution based on the framework of discovery that the many search use cases on Salesforce fit into: discover, act, reuse. Either the user is hoping to tap on something from a home screen without even searching, complete an action, or reuse material already deemed relevant. This is a framework that can be applied to any search ecosystem outside of Salesforce.

Take Google Maps, for example.

  • Discover. Google Maps shows you a way to explore restaurants and events as soon as you open the app — with options you might not even have been aware of.
  • Act. There is clear options to view details on stations nearby.
  • Reuse. Since I often navigate home, Google Maps adapts to show me this option first if I go to the “Driving” tab.
The “discover, act, reuse” framework in action in Google Maps.

In this way, search today follows a different flow. When visualizing the term search, we may often think of the search bar. However, search is no longer just a component to consider.


4. Search has become a narrative, not a component

Traditionally, users may search for a record on the Salesforce mobile application, drill in, and then take action. An idea I explored was what if we anticipate what actions on what records the user wants to take, and give them the opportunity to complete these common use cases through notifications?

In this way, we condense the narrative. The user wouldn’t be using the search bar component, but instead, they would be discovering the information they need in a different way.

In either case, the user is “searching”, but the search bar may not be explicitly touched throughout the interaction. This allows the user to remain in context without executing many global searches, and drives continued use of the product. Search has become so much more than just a component or just reimagining what the typeahead and results experience look like.

Search is about information discovery and how the user accomplishes their goals most efficiently.

5. Focus on the content the user is trying to find

It may be easy to focus on typeahead experiences, how to make autocomplete most useful, and where to position the search bar.

However, search is not just about the nuts and bolts of those interactions. A designer could spend years refining the placement of the search bar or making result previews more robust, but even Google has not focused on these details.

Google’s homepage remains empty, with simple autocomplete suggestions.

Refining search components is not as important as understanding the goals users are trying to accomplish. Users are trying to find information and take action quickly, and this may not have to involve the search bar at all.

Search designers should preemptively think about what the user is actually looking to see and do, and explore anticipatory mediums like notifications and customized feeds, rather than only focusing on the search suggestions and search results.


Like the considerate barista, we have the power to give users what they want even before they request it. In order to make speed up the user workflow, designers should begin viewing search as a narrative rather than a component.


Thank you Raymon Sutedjo-The for your feedback.

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