Where has ‘auto suggest’ gone?

‘Auto suggest’ was our attempt to second guess the answer a user wants based on the first few letters they type into a GOV.UK search box. We’ve had several people ask why we’ve removed the ‘auto suggest’ feature from GOV.UK recently, so we thought we’d give you a quick answer.

In short: it’s gone because it wasn’t good enough – yet.

In testing, confident users really liked it. But less confident users found our ‘get-you-straight-to-the-answer’ implementation confusing. If the information they were looking for didn’t appear as a ‘suggested answer’, they’d assume we didn’t have it and give up, rather than clicking the search button to get a more traditional list of results.

Plenty of sites auto suggest search queries as you type in a search box; far fewer try to get you straight to the answer, as we were endeavouring. But we don’t want to implement that if we think it’s going to confuse users who aren’t confident with search anyway.

If in doubt, we prioritise the needs of those users who need help the most, so we’ve switched off ‘auto suggest’ for now. We still suspect there is solution out there that will make search-based navigation clearer, simpler and faster for everyone, and we’ll be returning to this after GOV.UK is released on 17 October.

We’d love to know which sites you think do ‘auto suggest’ best – leave a comment or tweet @gdsteam.

14 comments

  1. Could you not have a given more prominence to the entry at the bottom that does a full site search, perhaps making it look like a result item? I did not spot it initially and was going to suggest a default search entry.

  2. I agree that auto-suggest is hard to get right. What can be more useful is the ‘did you mean’ function – either for typos – “unempolyment benifit” or colloquialisms “dole”. Would be great if these were incorporated. Google of course have many years experience getting this to a good stage.

  3. From what I’ve seen “Auto Suggest” is something that only really works for organisations such as Google who have huge, data driven search mechanisms available to them that can return results as quickly as the user types.

  4. If you take Chromes omnibox for example the first suggestion is always “Google Search” and rightly so as that is the action the user has set out to do, everything else is hoping to suggest a quicker route.

    Also the “UK Government sites for” is confusing to me, would that search gov.uk, everything or everything but gov.uk?

    How was the less confident users response to the actual search results themselves? Was there still confusion as that would suggest another problem altogether :D

  5. I hadn’t noticed that this had disappeared, but it’s good to know it’ll be making a return.

    Also, this is a bit off-topic, but I’ve noticed the responsive design doesn’t work in “mobile mode” on my Windows Phone. The source code doesn’t seem to include the element.

  6. Jonathan, Mark & Rick,

    It might be worth pointing out that the screenshot used above was taken from an early version of the auto-suggest tool (in this case the alpha).

    Over the past few months we tried out several iterations of the tool which included design tweaks and different wording before we turned it off completely a couple of weeks ago.

  7. We opted for providing results rather than auto suggesting search queries and found it relatively straight forward to implement. The results are returned from our CMS API using JQuery and a handler created in C#.

  8. I personally think it should be left on. As we move towards a new generation of internet user, they will be more savvy and more confident using websites. It will become second nature to them. In any case, if it confuses customers i would be asking how many users fall within that categry and is there anything we can do to eductae them on such features rather than turn them off, especialliy if the benefit of keeping it helps another group of users.

  9. Slighty off topic, but I noticed that when you are in the site the search box quickly dissapears off the top of the screen once you scroll down, meaning users will navigate through the menus when a search might well be quicker for them. Could it be changed to a ‘floating’ search box that stays on screen all the time? Perhaps making it a bit larger too with a stapline “Use search to get straight to what you are looking for” or similar might prompt more users to use search when within the site?

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