How to create a great faceted search and navigation experience

Louise Vollaire

Today’s online users have higher expectations than ever. They expect your site to be well-designed with a navigation based on predictable design patterns. If it isn’t, they’ll likely be frustrated and move on to a competitor’s site within minutes—if not seconds. Faceted search is an integral function that makes the search experience more seamless and helpful for your users. 

 

What is faceted search?

Faceted search is a search and navigation feature that lets users tweak the search results to their interests by selecting a range of different attributes. These attributes are typically grouped together into pre-defined facets, shown below, which are granular and chosen by the business.

faceted search in action on a site 

Faceted search is commonly viewed as a type of filtering. Filters are generally broader in scope and often help users segment content without even searching (e.g., “Women’s clothes” or “Children’s shoes” might be filters on an e-commerce site). Each filter, like the ones shown below, may produce hundreds or thousands of products, which can be frustrating for users to manually explore. 

filters on a site

 

Faceted search, however, allows users to refine their searches more intentionally.  Someone searching for “Women’s Dresses” likely would also want to narrow results with facet filters such as color, size, price range, and so on. Faceted search and navigation tools provide the ability for users to quickly do so.

 

Why is faceted search important for navigation?

Online consumers have high expectations for site performance and won’t tolerate a slow or clunky interface

Faceted search and navigation is an important component of optimized search. By eliminating the need for users to scroll through seemingly endless results, it decreases the time required for users to connect with what they want. This promotes a better  user experience, which is particularly important for mobile devices that have limited screen space and slower network connections. A fast and intuitive exploration process promotes more engaged users and higher conversions, among other benefits.

Here are 3 additional ways faceted search powers an efficient and intuitive user experience:

  1. Shows users what products and content are available. As a user navigates your site and selects facets, they are introduced to the specificities of your catalog. Facets can bring user’s attention to brands, styles, sizes, and other attributes that they otherwise would have missed.  With new knowledge, they confidently navigate your site and search for new items.
  2. Reduces the need for multiple searches. With faceted search, if a customer doesn’t immediately find an item of product that matches their specifications, they don’t need to keep changing and experimenting with their search queries just to find products. All they need to do is apply the correct facets to get closer to their needs. Contextual facets, which change according to the item or category selected, are particularly helpful to users for this purpose.
  3. Makes a large content catalog more manageable. In the past, product and content curators would have to consider scaling down their offerings to allow customers to browse everything they offer. With faceted search, users can navigate through much more content, opening up the door for merchandisers to sell more items on the site. 

 

Tips for faceted search and navigation

A good faceted search and navigation experience requires careful planning and iteration. There are a few important considerations to make when doing so:

 

Consider the customer

The facet filters on your site should cater to the needs and interests of as many of your users as possible. To craft the best faceted search, you need to understand what your users are searching for and how. Search analytics are another powerful way to do so. By tracking popular search keywords and metrics such as click through rates, you can see how users are engaging with your content and what types of facets could be added to better meet their needs. 

search analytics dashboard showing filters/facets

And don’t forget to include facets based on social proof such as reviews and ratings, which can lead customers to new things while building their confidence in products and services on your site.

 

Optimize the number of facets

While having facets that meet customers’ needs is a must, it’s also important not to have too many options. Choosing the correct number of facets will depend on your use case and the savviness of the user. A large number of facets, especially if there are several unnecessary or unused facets, can overwhelm users. When analyzing your search data, you should be conscious of which facets remain unused and trim these on an ongoing basis. Also note that facet options should contextually adapt as users type to only include relevant options. For example, when a user searches for a shirt, the facet options should include color, price, and brand, but should not include shoe size filters.

 

Allow multiple facets to be selected at once

If your content catalog is large, it’s likely that a single facet selection alone won’t narrow down the results enough for most customers to find what they’re looking for. However, with multiple facet options, it’s much more likely that they’re able to do so. For example, a search for a blue shirt may produce hundreds of results on a large e-commerce website, while a search for a blue women’s small t-shirt between $20-30 will be much more precise.

 

Use thematic filters

Thematic filters are much more subjective groupings of content. For an e-tailer, for example, thematic filters for women’s clothing might include options like “Holiday,” “Work,” “Casual,” or “Party.” Though the scope is not as narrow as other types of filters and facets, thematic filters guide users to specific types of products. By capturing specific moods or tastes, they have the potential to capture and match user intents better that traditional facets. They can also provide a good starting point for more passive browsers to start their exploration process. Once these users find a theme that is relevant to them, they can then narrow their scope down further with other facets. The experience below isn’t powered by Algolia, but is it a great example of thematic filters. 

Thematic filters

 

Show the number of results that match the facets that a user selects

Showing the number of results helps indicate to users how effective their search queries and facet selections were. Further, by providing these counts next to the unselected facets, these users can also see which are the most likely to get them to their desired content fastest. While a number of facets will often apply to users’ searches, they can often narrow down the content sufficiently with just a subset of these when ordered correctly.

number of results being shown after facet is selected

 

Exceed your users’ expectations with well-crafted faceted search and navigation

To provide an engaging and high-performance search experience to your users, you’ll need to setup and monitor a well-designed system for faceting and filtering content. This requires a searc