Inspiration comes from many sources. The inspiration for this week’s highlighted feature came from another piece of software called DragonBox. Seeing a nine year old with no previous exposure learn enough algebra in an hour to solve complex equations, inspired our team to think about how we might incorporate different user interface paradigms to help users learn concepts they weren’t familiar with.

The feature we were trying to develop was an advanced search that would allow the user to combine multiple employment criteria together. We prototyped three different interfaces, but kept stumbling on a few things. Complex criteria required grouping in a specific order to get the right results, and combining criteria required some “glue” like the words AND and OR. Both of these factors were easy for software developers and people who do database queries on a regular basis, but for the rest of humankind, it was easy to make a mistake. We needed to allow users to regroup data quickly and help them remember when they hadn’t put in the connector glue or when they had put in too much connector glue. Many of these concepts were straightforward to users familiar with high-level mathematics or formal logic, but difficult to explain to users that didn’t have that experience.

So we set about with a completely new design. We started with a few basic ideas: we didn’t want to confuse novice users, we wanted users to feel like they could accomplish this kind of searching (that it wouldn’t seem too confusing or hard), we wanted users to be able to recover from mistakes easily and we wanted them to get the data that they needed.

A picture of the advanced search toolbar and an in progress search for complex employment queries.

Users want to do their job, but computers require persnickety notation. The shape of the empty box helps users pick the right item to complete their query.

We knew that significant usability testing would be needed, because the design was such a departure from other user interfaces. As developers began to complete portions of the feature, a special edict was given to all the software testers. No one was allowed to look at or test this feature without having the product design team looking over their shoulder.

Usability testing can teach you so much if you let it. The biggest struggle is to stay completely silent as people struggle through trying to figure things out (this is why usability testing is often done in a lab with a one way mirror) and redirecting questions back to the user like, “What would you expect that button to do?” when they ask, “What does that button do?”

The first few usability tests caused us to add additional benchmarks for the feature. We decided we needed to make it obvious how to start, get users to try something they had never done without overwhelming them, support different navigation paths to accomplish the same thing (who double clicks on something that says Drag, anyway?) and provide additional feedback when they were doing things right.

Instructions for the advanced search.

As a result of several usability tests, instructions for the new advanced search were designed to put users’ minds at ease. Technical words and quotation marks were removed, while an illustration of a complex search was added.

After several weeks of watching new user after new user and making adjustments after each one, we were ready for our Monday team demo. When it came time to demonstrate the feature, we asked our CEO, who had never seen the feature, to try to use it in front of the whole company. He is an adventurous soul, so he jumped right in — and immediately began using the feature as the team had hoped.

It made for an exciting demo. If you’d like to see the feature that was inspired by a kid using fun software to learn algebra and produced a smiling group of people, please join our User Group Feature Demonstration.