Coffee, Coffee, Coffee!

In 1984, Robin Williams starred in Moscow on the Hudson as a Russian saxophonist who decides to defect from the USSR during a shopping trip to a New York department store. One scene stands out, particularly to those of us who focus on search experience.

This scene, shown below, depicts the protagonist going to the supermarket to buy coffee. Expecting to find a “coffee line” where he will have to queue up to get a single kind of coffee, he is literally overwhelmed by the abundance of coffee options available to him in the “coffee aisle”.

Some people interpret this scene as either a celebration or a mockery of American free-market capitalism. But, as someone who works on search, I see a parable about information overload.

Indeed, a search for “coffee” on most grocery ecommerce sites leads to an experience that has me mumbling, “coffee, coffee, coffee!” At least the coffee aisle in the grocery store is organized by brand and style — the search results are rarely so easy to navigate. Instead, they are as disorganized as they are overwhelming.

It’s not that these sites don’t have tools like facets to help searchers navigate the myriad available options. The facets are there, but they are usually tucked away in a side panel — or, worse, hidden behind a button for filtering options. In other words, the faceted organization is not treated as a first-class part of the search experience.

To be fair, not all search tasks are like this. For example, if you already know what brand of coffee you are looking for, a search for that brand probably reduces the results to a manageable number. Moreover, a reasonable ranking model should usually manage to meet you needs on the first page.

But broad and ambiguous search queries require support for the searcher’s journey. And it’s not hard to find these queries — they are the queries where searchers experience the most friction.

So please, if you are providing a search experience — even if you don’t sell coffee — do yourselves and your searchers a favor and stop overwhelming them. Your searchers will be happier — and they will buy more, too.



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