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Navigating the Maze of Mobile Apps – Design for Mobile App Search

| 8 min read

In the digital age, people have come to rely on search as one of, if not THE, foremost tools for navigation in applications and online. Integrating search into mobile applications can be straightforward and users will thank you for it. The mobile user experience relies just as much on effective search as the desktop one.

Thanks to the efficiency of Google and with a nod to many other well put together search engines – search has become the leading means of getting around the internet and getting round the insides of many applications. That means that mobile applications also need to take advantage of search functionality in order to deliver user experiences of a sufficient standard.

The 8 Patterns of Mobile Search

The good news is that search is a well-understood area of functionality. There are 8 common patterns that are applied to mobile search and they can be used either individually or in combination with each other for maximum effect.

  • Auto-Complete

  • Dynamic Search

  • Explicit Search

  • Faceted Search

  • Saved and Recent

  • Scoped Search

  • Search Forms

  • Search Results


Author/Copyright holder: Rillke. Copyright terms and licence: Public Domain

This is often used in conjunction with explicit search; it’s the idea that when a user begins typing a word – the software looks to complete it for them. This is particularly important on the mobile platform where typing is a matter of thumb presses rather than using a keyboard.

Dynamic Search

Dynamic search uses a form of filtering, so that when a user begins to enter data – the content already on the screen is filtered based on the search field. This can be very useful when a user is trying to wade through large volumes of data – for example, a list of hotels in a certain area.

It’s worth noting that dynamic search can be limiting when using huge data sets that are pulled from different data repositories.

Explicit Search

This type of search requires an action from the user to start the search; such as tapping a button on the display or perhaps using a keyboard control. Results from the search will, normally, be shown directly below the search bar.

Explicit search can be used in conjunction with auto-complete for better UX on mobile devices.

Faceted Search

Faceted Search is a more complex version of scoped (or filtered) search. It tries to deliver a huge number of search filtering criteria and allows the use of multiple filters to narrow down huge data sets. This is commonly implemented in a tray pattern that enables a user to set filters without having any prior knowledges of Boolean logic.

Author/Copyright holder: Peter Morville. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY 2.0

The controls and the results will be displayed at the same time, so that users can make tweaks to their filters “on the fly”.

Saved and Recent

This search pattern recognizes that users often want to return to a search that they have used in the past. It allows the user to save their searches (or does this automatically on behalf of the user) and then to recall these searches at a later date.

A saved search will normally require user action to retain the search for later use; a recent search will, usually, be stored automatically by the app with no action required by the user.

Scoped Search

A scoped search allows the user to define criteria for the search before they begin their search. For example, Google allows users to choose between image searches, web searches, news searches, etc. before entering the data.

The designer needs to examine the data set carefully for the search criteria and then focus on allowing simple filters that deliver value to the user. Remember the limited screen real estate on mobile and try to keep the number of filters to a minimum whilst delivering value.

Search Forms

If you need a variety of data to conduct a search, for example if you ran a flight booking service – you might need to know the date of departure, date of return, number of people flying, seat preferences, destinations, etc. then you can use a simple form to collect all the data to deliver quality search results.

Author/Copyright holder: TheDJ. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY-SA 3.0

The idea is to keep this as simple as possible without depleting the quality of results. Only use fields that are absolutely necessary and don’t waste screen real estate or inconvenience the mobile user with a limited amount of typing patience. It can also be valuable to focus on operating system input techniques when it comes to designing mobile forms.

You should, as always, follow form design best practices to ensure that forms deliver maximum usability and utility.

Search Results

Once a user has performed a search, you need to share the results with the user. This can be done in a number of different ways:

  • Thumbnail images of relevant results – for products, pictures, etc.

  • Tabulated results – ideal for flights, hotels, etc.

  • List results – a standard search result for data based pages, etc.

  • Map results – where location matters

You can also offer a mixture of the formats or the ability for the user to switch between one format of result and another. The ideal is to find a default display which is the one the majority of users prefer and then to offer transitions to less popular choices.

With mobile bandwidth being constrained and data costs being met by the user of mobile apps or mobile websites; you may want to provide a small handful of results and allow the user to extend the results list if they can’t find what they want in the original results.

It can also be valuable to offer an indication of the total number of results found so that the user can decide whether to scroll through the list or if it is dauntingly large – to refine their search before exploring the list.

The Takeaway

There is not an infinite number of mobile search patterns. In fact, there are only 8 standard patterns which may be used either separately or in conjunction with each other. Ensuring that you implement search within your mobile application effectively, ensures a better user experience and a greater degree of user satisfaction.

References & Where to Learn More:

Find some great designs for mobile search UI at Design Your Way.

Get some guidance on applying UI design patterns in mobile apps.

Get some inside knowledge from the Nielsen Group on implementing and using Faceted Search.

Hero Image: Author/Copyright holder: Checkingfax. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY-SA 4.0

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