Tables arrange data into rows and columns. They are a time proven way of organizing and presenting data. Once upon a time, Ancestry.com utilized columnar tables when presenting search results. (Anyone remember how they did it back in ‘97?) Ancestry never mixed search results from different record collections. This presentation was one reason many users preferred “Old Search” over “New.”
Ancestry users had a clear preference for columnar search results
FamilySearch’s soon-to-be-retired classic.FamilySearch.org website came along in 1999. Its sentence style presentation of results from one or more record collections made scanning results slow and inconvenient.
With the introduction of relevance-ranked search results from multiple record collections, Ancestry succumbed to the dark side, labeling and stacking the information (a tabular column replacing columnar table).
This layout persists in “New Search” today.
FamilySearch came along in 2007 and introduced the Record Search Pilot. It utilized columns!
The progress was soon lost with the introduction of Beta FamilySearch.org which again stacked search results. FamilySearch improved on the Ancestry display by bolding the principal name, but lost ground by separating it from the rest of the record data.
In the September 2011 release of FamilySearch.org, FamilySearch has introduced a compromise.
FamilySearch made three major changes. They widened the search results to utilize wasted screen space on either side of the results. That gets a thumbs up. They included more information. Also a thumbs up. And they lined up dates, places, and the names of other people. This is a great step in the right direction, but I think more is possible.
Rules for Website Designers
I think lists of search results should follow these requirements:
- Utilize the entire width of the screen.
- If something else shares the horizontal space, allow the user to resize the two panes.
- Allow the user to change column widths, change the order of columns, and add or remove columns dynamically. See Microsoft Outlook or Windows Explorer for examples.
- Allow the user to sort any column in either direction (such as A to Z or Z to A).
- The first two columns should be principal name and principal date. For a death record, that is decedent and death date. For a marriage record, it is the individual matching the search result and the marriage date. For a census, it is resident and residence date.
- Almost never stack or combine data of different types (dates and places, for example) or different semantics (birth and death dates, for example).
- One instance in which it might be okay to stack, is a column with all the names of others mentioned in the record, labeling them as Ancestry and FamilySearch do today.
- Another instance might be links and icons associated with actions, such as cameras, permissions, quality, and links to view record or image.
- In most instances, wrap information that is too long for a column. In some instances, truncate the information, show ellipses, and display complete values when the cursor is placed on top of the truncated information.
Here’s an artist conception of such a layout. The user has squished several columns and sorted by birth date.
My reference to Windows Explorer (not Internet Explorer, but the computer/folder viewer) raises some interesting possibilities for exploration. Explorer has several views: detail, thumbnails of varying size, icon view, and list view. I can imagine clever web designers tickling additional ways to interact with search results.
What about you? What is your wish list for the layout of search results?