Saturday, March 31, 2012

Hotmail Search Usability Issues

By Ahmed M.Orabi

Hotmail emails search provides us the required search capabilities that help us to locate the e-mails that we are interested in. However, the way that the search results are placed, and how we can navigate, make this feature unusable although its backend side is well-implemented.

1. Description of the problem

When you search for an e-mail in your hotmail account, you can use the quick search feature located on the right hand side of your current e-mails contents (input, outbox, etc):

And also, it provides advanced search features:

When you search for something, you can get a list of its related e-mails:

This is good. Now, the next step is that you want to navigate any of these e-mails to ensure that this is what you are looking for. When you open an e-mail, this will open that e-mail and the search contents will be taken away from the screen:

Given that you opened this e-mail and you found that this is not what you are looking for, what would be your next step? For my case, I used my browser back button assuming that it will return me back to previous page (which has the search contents). However, this took me to the MSN home page; I realized that the search operations do not update the URL and thus the back button won’t work in that case. As a next step to do, you will need to re-run your search again. Even at this point, what you typed is cleared out from the search quick input, or the advanced search. So, you will find yourself needing to type your search input all from the beginning to get all results again and make sure this time to ignore what you navigated before.
A user can think of as a workaround to avoid this issue by opening each e-mail in a new window using the control keystroke when clicking on a search result entry. This opens a new page (which is good); however, this will take then to the hotmail home page. This means that the user will need to run the search many times.

Generally, the way to return back to the search contents is by using the search tab in the side navigation bar:
So, if you would like to return back to your search results, you can simply click on that link. This way is not that easy to discover and also leads us to more number of clicks.

2. Suggestions

Using the breadcrumb way would be better for that case, and we can display at the top of each e-mail you open from the search contents. The label could be something like: Return back to search results.
We can improve this breadcrumb and make it even better by providing next and previous anchors. So, when we click next, this means we go to the next search entry in the search table, and previous takes us to the previous entry.  Also, we can still provide the pagination contents for that search results in place, so the user will know where they are at the moment. We can also provide a popup drop down to show the current subjects in the current search index, as well as next and previous. Here is a mockup:

Thus, we will be easily able to realize how to return back to the search results as this is shown at the top of the opened e-mail. In addition, this will reduce the number of clicks by using next/previous anchors, or using the popup navigation.
Also, make sure to update the browser URL value, so when we use the back/forward buttons, this will take us back to the search results or navigated e-mails.

3. Conclusion

Hotmail search support is well implemented in term of the backend side. However, its UI needs some work to provide better users’ end-to-end scenarios as search feature must expect the users to navigate between different e-mails till they reach their required entries. This can be done by replacing the search sidebar approach by a breadcrumb instead with some other features such as next/previous and rich hover support to have quick navigation to other fields.


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