The App Store's Search Interface Trade-off

The App Store received a significant user interface redesign in iOS 6. The Lightwood Games blog shares “everything that’s wrong” with the update, including the new search result listings: > Now, instead of the native app table view, we’re presented with just one app per screen. A full thumb swipe from right to left is required to move to the next item. You can’t just zing your finger to the left and cause a bunch of apps to whizz past either. There’s no physics here. One gesture moves precisely one page.

While I don’t agree with everything in the Lightwood piece, the change to search results from a vertical tabular list, to a horizontal carousel-list is worth comment, as I believe it is a trade-off between “browsing without really knowing what I’m looking for”, and “searching for something specific”. Apple appears to have shifted the emphasis to the former, at the expense of the latter.

The goal of a list in most interfaces is to present a number of options from which the user has to pick a single item (multi-select list boxes excepted).

There are two interesting properties of list interfaces that effect their utility, depending on the goal the user is trying to achieve:

Scroll Direction

Horizontal or vertical? When it comes to selecting a single thing, usability testing shows that vertical scrolling is preferable. Jakob Nielsen: > We know from user testing that users hate horizontal scrolling and always comment negatively when they encounter it. Customer satisfaction is surely reason enough to avoid horizontal scrolling.

Whatever the reason, vertical scrolling was the more familiar and intuitive paradigm among users of the web, circa 2005. However, since this piece of web-usability research was done, Apple have used horizontal scrolling with some success in native interfaces. Remember Cover Flow?

First popularised by iTunes in 2006, Cover Flow demonstrated that a carousel-like horizontal list was a desirable method for browsing graphical representations of items. Cover Flow does a great job of showing off one item in a list, one at a time: Album covers look beautiful in iTunes.

In 2007 Cover Flow made its way into the OS X Finder for browsing documents and photos inside a folder. The iPhone and iPod Touch have since adopted the Cover Flow interface for browsing music.

The horizontally scrolling carousel-list interface, is really good for idly browsing through a list when you’re not sure exactly what you’re looking for. But when the goal is to choose one specific thing, flipping through a collection that is not sorted for relevance, one item at a time, feels ineffective and wasteful.

And that’s the problem with the new search results on the App Store: If I’m trying to select just one app from a list, and that app isn’t the first one, then I have to go through an inefficient horizontal swipe until the one I want is selected.

Worse, because the horizontal list doesn’t feature the helpful Cover Flow physics to help scroll quickly, after a few swipes I’m ready to give up.

Sort Order

Sorting a list helps us locate items relative to each other. We understand that the entries in our Contacts app are sorted alphabetically, so we know that ‘Jane Smith’ will be further down the list than ‘Johnny Appleseed’.

Sorting search results is a radically different challenge to sorting contacts because now we’re talking about sorting by relevance. Just look at how much engineering effort Google spends making the first result in their web search the most relevant to your query.

When you get really good at sorting by relevance, subsequent items in your list of results become irrelevant. When was the last time you clicked onto the second page of a list of search results? This is the reason Google’s “I’m feeling lucky” button exists: Google got so good at sorting their search results by relevance that they can send you directly to the most relevant result for your search terms.

If the App Store’s search results were sorted by relevance such that the first or second items in the list were always the thing we wanted then the new interface makes perfect sense. If I always found the app I searched for in the top five search results, I could probably forgive the sluggish scrolling.

But in reality the App Store search results generally leave a lot to be desired.

Here’s an example: Last night I wanted to install the ‘Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus’ app, so I entered the search term ‘Oxford Dictionary’. There are a number of Oxford branded reference apps for sale in the App Store, but the first one—which happened to be the official ‘Oxford Dictionary & Thesaurus’ app that I was looking for—appeared at number 88 of 7,622 apps.

To reach the 88th app in the new App Store took minutes of scrolling, because I had to look at each app to see if it was the one I wanted.

The Trade-off

Apple is not a search company. I’m sure they will continue to improve the quality of their search results, but having super-accurate app search results has not prevented people from purchasing billions of apps. In order to sell a lot of apps, the App Store needs to be optimised for browsing, which makes the horizontal list interface a much better choice.

There’s also now a uniformity to the App Store tabs. Along with search results, the ‘Featured’, ‘Charts’ and ‘Genius’ tabs use horizontally scrolling lists to promote more browsing.

It’s easy for the average person to open the App Store, enter a vague search term and then browse through the horizontal list. And if you find more than one app that takes your fancy, that’s great because the iOS 6 App Store allows you to buy and install multiple apps from any list without leaving the store.

While search may be a little frustrating if you know exactly what you’re looking for, Apple is now training you to buy a few things you didn’t know you needed, on your way to finding the thing you actually wanted.