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Where should the search function be placed?

By Per Ström and Richard Whitehand, May 2006

Several years ago in the USA a study was carried out to investigate where users expected to find different common elements on web pages. The study, carried out by the Software Usability Research Laboratory at Wichita State University was documented in an article by Michael Bernard.

Inspired by this interesting piece of research, we decided to conduct a similar study in Sweden to gather data concerning where Swedish Internet users expect to find different elements on web sites today. The aim of the study was to gather objective data to help support our interaction design work in certain client projects, however in this article we share some of the findings.

140 internet users from the Stockholm area participated in the study. Ages ranged from 16 to 66 years old and the background of participants was quite varied, though all used the internet at least a few times a week. They were asked where they expected to find the following:

  • Main navigation menu
  • Search function
  • Shopping trolley
  • Telephone number to the company
  • Adverts
  • Home link
  • Login function
  • Logout button

To support the study a special web-based form was created, allowing users to simply ‘click in’ areas of a web page where they expected to find different elements (users could re-use the same areas for different items if they wished).

The results were interesting in that there were differences compared to the findings from the earlier American study. Illustrated below are the findings for the first three elements (the darker the shading of an area, the more participants that selected it). .

Main navigation menu

Expected placement of main navigation menu

Most participants expected to find the main navigation to the left of a web page, or across the top. In both cases the top left corner was clearly seen as the starting point and then the expected extent of the navigation (down or to the right) varied somewhat.

Search function

Expected placement of search function

More participants expected to find this in the top right corner compared to anywhere else.

Shopping trolley

Expected placement of shopping trolley

Here expectations differed, quite probably reflecting the fact that the shopping trolley placement differs considerably between sites. However, to the top right or along the bottom of the web page were most common selections. (One assumes that a bottom-of-page placement entails a design solution where the shopping trolley remains always visible even with longer content pages).

When designing the layout of a web site it is important to consider where users expect to find things. Over the years we’ve studied user interaction with hundreds of web sites and seen how the unusual placement of elements can cause trouble for users. In some cases inappropriately placement can actually prevent people from using a site.

We plan to repeat this study once a year to follow how user expectations vary over time.

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