Does Search Need to be in the Upper Right?

Jared Spool

March 22nd, 2006

Under the brilliant guidance of Barbara Chaparro, the students at Wichita State’s SURL are one of the top web research teams in the country.

Recently, in a paper entitled Where’s the Search? Re-examining User Expectations of Web Objects, A. Dawn Shaikh and Kelsi Lenz revisit a previous study where they looked at user’s expectations for certain standard features of a web site, such as the “Back to home” link, the search box, the “About this site” link, and advertisements.

For example, when they asked their 142 study participants to signify where they’d expect a link that brought you back to the home page, 44% chose the upper left corner.

Where user's expected to find the
44% of participants said they expected upper left corner for the “Back To Home” link.

At first glance, this data feels like it could be useful for helping designers choose where to put their important content. If users expect to find content in a certain place, that’s where we should put it, right?

Well, what the study doesn’t address is what happens when the content isn’t where they expect. Does, for example, having the Back-to-home link in the upper right present an obstacle to users? Does it impact their ability to complete their tasks?

Our experience is a well-designed page trumps user expectations every time.

17% of participants said they expected the upper right corner for the Search Box
17% of participants said they expected the upper right corner for the search box.

The study shows that users expect Search to be in the upper right on the page, such as on Washington Mutual’s Home Page:

Click to see Wamu.com's Home Page
Click to see Wamu.com’s Home Page

Yet, do users who bank at Wells Fargo have more trouble with the site because their search box is more to the left?

Click to see WellsFargo.com's Mortgage Page
Click to see WellsFargo.com’s Mortgage Page

Amazon’s users don’t seem to be suffering because they’ve put their search box in the center:

Click to see Amazon.com's Home Page
Click to see Amazon.com’s Home Page

Nor did any users we observed on BestBuy.com:

Click to see BestBuy.com's Search Results Page
Click to see BestBuy.com’s Search Results Page

We can continue to play “Where’s Waldo?” by looking for the search box on the City of Tucson site. Can you find it? Will it affect users?

Click to see City of Tucson's Home Page
Click to see City of Tucson’s Home Page

And of course, nobody can figure out how to use eBay’s use of two search boxes on the same screen! Oh, the humanity!

Click to see eBay.com's Search Results Page
Click to see eBay.com’s Search Results Page

Just because users expect the search box to be in the upper right (at least 27% of the time), doesn’t mean that they can’t adjust to finding it in other places. After all, we humans are exceptionally adaptable to our surroundings. We can survive when the search box is 400 pixels to the left or 100 pixels down.

So, how does this study help us? If we can’t use it as guidance as to how to structure our design, does it have any value? Or is it just another one of those interesting facts, such as the numbers published in Harper’s Magazine?

14 Responses to “Does Search Need to be in the Upper Right?”

  1. Inkbase » » Design, Art, Culture & Technology » Published by Jason Landry in Vancouver, Canada Says:

    [...] Continuing the smack-down theme… Jared Spool questions the value of a Wichita State Software Uusability Research Lab study regarding user expectations. [...]

  2. Lar Veale Says:

    When we make usability recommendations to a client on how to position a search box, we generally say “make sure it’s displayed prominently towards the top of the page”.

    If need be, we can further qualify by saying something like “the most common position is top right, below the banner”, or “top-left, beneath the logo”.

  3. Jesper Rønn-Jensen (justaddwater.dk) Says:

    Thanks for posting these interesting findings. I’m really curious about how you would relate this to the guidelines of Jakob Nielsen. I mean, he advocates guidelines as “put search in top right (and make it wide enough for input)”. On the other hand, this research proves that it isn’t important.
    So what’s your response? Who do you believe? Who do you follow? (and don’t just give me the diplomatic “it depends” answer…

  4. Michael Zuschlag Says:

    Of course humans can adapt, but isn’t one of the main tenants of usability that it’s better for the system to adapt to humans rather than the other way around? Given the largest proportion of users expect search in the upper right, designers should put Search in the upper right, unless –and that’s a big “unless” –there is a compelling human factors reason not to. I suspect Amazon and Ebay and perhaps the others have compelling reason: Search is their *primary* navigation tool. They want *all* users to focus in on Search, not only the few users who are intentionally looking for search, but also those who are just looking for where to start in general. I suspect that if you were eye-track such users, the first few fixations of will tend to fall in the upper-middle-left region of the web page, at least for Western users. So the SURL study does provide useful guidance. But yes, like nearly all guidance in usability, “it depends.”

  5. Marcia Says:

    To my way of thinking, these findings don’t contradict user expectations. If you see a contradiction in this case, you are oversimplifying user expectations. User expectations are that “a search box is most likely to feature prominently near the top (usually but not necessarily also near the right).”

  6. leisa reichelt Says:

    Interesting post, Jared.

    I have been thinking about this a little lately since I reviewed the ‘redesign’ of Craigs List that was presented at SXSW by the ‘Design Eye’ guys. The decided not to put the search in the top RHS corner, and for me, it feels all wrong.

    Which is not to say that I think we should be completely rigid and work out where certain elements ‘belong’ and then put them there. But I think that we need to know when we’re moving them away from their most expected location, and make sure that the display of that element is prominent enough to attract the users attention – I think some of the examples you’ve shown above do that quite nicely. (Unlike the redesigned Craigs List, I’d suggest).

    Also – you say that users are ‘exceptionally adaptable’. That’s an argument I’ve used myself… but then when I look at my behaviour, I start to wonder exactly how true that is.

    The example I use at the moment is when Gmail moved the ‘Delete’ tool from a dropdown list to a button next to the drop down. The button is an entirely more sensible location and representation of the Delete task than the dropdown, but it took me *months* to stop automatically looking in the dropdown for delete….

    I don’t think of myself as unable to adapt… but obviously habits form hard and fast! I wonder if there’s been any research to show if I’m unique or exhibit common user behaviour?

    (redesigned Craigs List for those who haven’t taken a look is here: http://craigslist.thebignoob.com/

  7. Artie Pajak Says:

    Jesper, I don’t mean to contradict you, and maybe Nielsen has published something else since, but according to his book “Homepage Usability” the recommended location for the Search is “Upper part of the page, preferably in the right or left corner.” That doesn’t conflict with what’s being said here – it basically supports both views.

  8. links for 2006-03-24 at disambiguity Says:

    [...] Does Search Need to be in the Upper Right? (UIE) in which Jared Spool argues that research that shows that users expect search to be located in the upper right side of a website doesn’t mean that its any less usable positioned elsewhere (tags: usability search interactiondesign) [...]

  9. Daniel Szuc Says:

    In terms of accepting a pattern and user’s not spending extra energies looking for a function (based on previous experiences) – its very helpful.

    It also means that Designers can spend their best energies looking at other functions to innovate without spending additional time and resources on placements of common components.

  10. Jared Spool Says:

    Jesper wrote:

    I’m really curious about how you would relate this to the guidelines of Jakob Nielsen. I mean, he advocates guidelines as “put search in top right (and make it wide enough for input)”. On the other hand, this research proves that it isn’t important.
    So what’s your response? Who do you believe? Who do you follow?

    I think you need to serve the design. If it makes sense to put the search box in the upper right corner, go ahead and do so. However, if the design is better served by placing it somewhere else (such as in the center, as in Amazon’s case), then that’s what you should do.

    Well-designed pages will work no matter where the search box is. A convoluted page will fail, even if the search box is in the upper right.

  11. Jared Spool Says:

    Michael wrote:

    Of course humans can adapt, but isn’t one of the main tenants of usability that it’s better for the system to adapt to humans rather than the other way around?

    The main tenant of usability is to eliminate any sources of frustration. If users don’t find an alternative location of the search box frustrating, why should we consider doing anything about it?

    Adapting to humans doesn’t mean meeting expectations that aren’t based on anything meaningful. The only time we need to consider adapting to humans is if the act of not adapting to them makes their life more difficult. If it makes no difference, then it’s not worth the effort, in my opinion.

  12. KAUSHIK DAVE Says:

    I’m not an expert but I saw your comment on Ebay and definitely agree that its very confusing for an end user to understand the reason of having two search boxes with the same search behavior, as the top search box also allows you searching for new criterions. I believe, if you have two sets of search boxes, then the one at the top right should be a global search and not for searching page level items.

  13. Devaprasad Says:

    The location at the top of the page is mainly for the following reasons:

    1. Search field is made available on all pages at the same location.

    2. Real Estate Crunch – It’s not feasible to have a bigger textbox with a button next to it on the left or the right navigation bar

    3. Search is for the whole site and not for a given section

    I believe search can be either at the top right, top centre or the top left, but IT MUST BE AT A PLACE WITH SOME WHITE SPACE OR NON CONTRASTING ELEMENTS AROUND for a faster recognition. The placement also depends on the page’s content, structure and the visual design.

    On “http://store.babycenter.com/category/on_sale?intcmp=Store_Contentsite_UnpersHP_StorePlacements” you will notice that the search looks like its part of the menu bar. Users will wonder if the search is limited to the selected section/tab or the whole site.

    Jared, on “http://www.uie.com/brainsparks/” I am sure a section of users will look at the search field and then percieve that it is to search for information ONLY WITHIN THE BELOW LINKS and not the whole site. The instruction “Search uie.com via Google.” will not be noticed at its current position or even if you had it much closer to the field.

    I suggest that we must ensure that we dont combine search with UI Structure elements. If there are surrounding elements its better to have either a thin line or a background colour that can act as a differentiator alongwith white space around.

  14. Linking a Sites Search Function to the Browser’s Search Bar | Nicolas Schudel Says:

    [...] The search bar has become a common feature in modern browsers since it was introduced by Firefox in 2004. Users have gotten so used to finding the search bar in the upper right hand corner of the window, that many sites adapted their layout to place their own local search in the same area. [...]

Add a Comment