Frustrations in the Search Experience

Posted on Jul 13, 2009 by in customer experience | 0 comments

On the web, regardless of the reason why we can’t find what we are looking for, our emotion is pretty much the same: we get frustrated, more and more rapidly over time.

As a result, two potential reaction are usually adopted:

  • I prefer not receiving these services anymore until there is something better out there
  • I will use it for now, but I will definitely quit as soon as there is something better out there

The type of reaction is usually more linked to the need we have for the service than our level of frustration (i.e.: we can be extremely frustrated, but continue to force ourselves to continue if we really need to find the information, while a slightly disengaging experience turns us off quickly if the service is not critical for us).

In this post, I try to identify the sources of these frustrating experiences when related to search & navigation and discuss the ways they can be solved.


As we can see in this diagram, a negative experience can be worse than no experience at all!

Defining properly the real cases of frustration of the online experiences is a much more complex task than it seems. Indeed, a definition like “I can’t find what I am looking for” is not quite precise enough to come up with appropriate solutions.

Here are the most common cases as I see them, which I divided in two groups:

A: I know what I want:

  • DOES NOT EXIST: The information I am looking does not exist on the web site.
  • TOO FAR: The information I am looking for is in a list of many results, but I don’t know where
  • HIDDEN: The information I am looking for exists but is not included in the result lists of my searches/navigation

B: I don’t know what I want (at least not exactly):

  • All the points of A
  • UNDEFINABLE: I don’t know how to define what I am looking for (maybe it is there, maybe not)
  • UNDIFFERENTIATABLE: I don’t know how to identify the information which I want out of others which seem fully similar
  • UNCOMPARABLE: I found something, but it is impossible (too hard/long) to make sure it is the most adapted option for me

Many other points could be added in consideration of the reasons people decide not to buy on e-commerce portals, but I will only focus here on the frustration of the user, not of the seller 😉

Also, other points could be related to the frustration of exploring the content of the information (not sufficient, too complex, too long, etc.), but I will only focus here on the information access problematic.

We can see that the experience of someone who does not know what he is looking for exactly is much more likely to be frustrating than the one of someone who does (which is quite intuitive). This explains to some degree why it is harder to deliver a good online customer experience in a Gift Shop than in a Office Supply Store.


This is probably one of today’s biggest differences between the online and the offline world. When you go to an electronics store and ask for a well known product like the IPhone, they will immediately let you know if they don’t sell it (which is often the case, as the distributor are mainly the telco operators).

Strangely, when you go on stores like Amazon, you have no indications that the products does not exist after searching for it and you might spend (like me) up to 30 minutes until realizing that they actually don’t sell it. You will even find yourself encouraged to do so by the auto-completion search suggestions which invites you to type: “Iphone”, “Iphone 3G”, “IPhone 3G unlocked”, …; clearly misleading as it strongly imply that the Iphone is a well-known product in their offer.

Identifying that the customer is looking for something which you don’t have (or simply that you have, but not as part of your online collection) is a crucial part of providing a positive customer experience. Inviting the customer to be contacted when the situation changes is also a good idea (by e-mail, or by calling him).

TOO FAR – HIDDEN: The great pleasures of trial & errors:

Another way to explain this issue is UNDERDEFINED – OVERDEFINED:

PC under 500$ : 3’000.- results

with bluray burner : 0 results

with a hard drive bigger than 50 Go : 2’950 results

with > 19” screen : 2 results I don’t like

with CPU > 2Ghz : 2’850 results

This is a pretty understandable problem, as most manufacturers focus on the biggest demand and therefore the most needed features are present in almost every models. Many other aspects differentiate them, but most of them are not part of the important need of the customer (for the exact same reason). Therefore, the TOO FAR – HIDDEN scenario can last for a long time, and the user will need to open many tabs on his browser not to loose the products he wants to consider. He will need to switch from one to the other to have a way to compare (not exactly what was intended by the “compare” features) and will lose everything when he exits his browser.

Making sure the user can have an efficient view on the set of parameters which matters for him is key to avoid this vicious frustration cycle.

Depending on the case, this selection can be done explicitly by the user (which brings a certain amount of complexity in the user interface) or induced more intelligently in the back (reducing the freedom of change of the user). There is no magic formula, but there is definitely a need.


Try to imagine your mother buying a computer online and you will have a good picture of what undefinable means: while certain people will be able to know what to ask for in terms of CPU, Memory, or Hard drive, defining these parameters can be mission impossibles for others. Their requests are much more subjective and define the usage they want to have with the device, instead of the required properties it must have.

The typical approach nowadays to solve this challenge is to force customers through a predefined path providing simple to understand explanation (e.g.: “What hard drive do you want? A hard drive is where you can store all your data (pictures, documents, etc.)“,[ “100 Go (up to 30’000 songs or 100 movies)”, “250 Go (up to 75’000 songs or 300 movies)”, “500 Go (up to 150’000 songs or 500 movies)”]).

However, a better way would be to provide a completely different type of search criteria to the users who need them, with parameters like the desired usage: office work, image editing, video montage, 3D gaming, etc.

Adding subjective confirmation on the product can confirm the impression of having found the right ones (e.g.: “This model is perfectly suited if you look for a entry price desktop computer to do office work”, “This model is powerful enough to edit all your family videos with great visual effects like in the movies!”, …)


There is nothing more frustrating than to have the feeling that 3 products are just exactly the same. In some cases, increasing the size of the database in order to offer a bigger product line can backfire for the customer experience. Customers had no problems to find the right products in the past and are now confronted with big lists of products which all look similar.

This problem can also give the customer the impression that the provider is not able to select the good product offering for him and just pushes everything to make more money. In such case, the price tends to be perceived as the only competitive value (versus the expertise of choosing the right products for the customer target segment).

The best way to solve this problem is to complete the product properties to provide the final differences (and possibly to invite the customer to narrow down his selection with these new criteria).

Another common approach is to provide CGC (Customer Generated Content), not requiring any manual effort on the side of the company and showing an “objective” evaluation of the product to let the customer increase its confidence to identify the right product out of a small selection.

On the other hand, it has the limitation to be very general (if 50% of the people like the products and 50% don’t like it, the ranking will not give anything relevant), and to push a potentially heavy analysis work on the side of the customer (having to read hundreds of reviews, most of them providing no interesting content). On top of this, reviews can contain information implying a bad after sales experience with the provider, which might be difficult to find and moderate.

The most sophisticated approach I have seen so far is CGC over CGC (or like I like to call it: CGC²): let the customers vote for the most useful customer reviews (the one saying the product is good and the other one that it is not). It is then likely that customers will limit their reading to these and it enable companies to only moderate a small percentage of the total amount of reviews.


The problems related to comparing products are quite similar to the one of differentiating a small selection of them. However, the experience (and frustrations) can be quite different. In that way, the comparability is more tricky in terms of customer experience than the problem of differentiation.

  • If the customer finds 3 products and needs to differentiate them to identify the best one, the coverage is extremely simple: it’s these 3 products.
  • If the customer finds one product he likes, but want to see if there is anything else he should consider, this coverage is fully open-ended.

Unlike what some providers might think, this problem is not solved by pushing more compelling marketing message on the product detail page, as the challenge is not to be convince of the product value, but to remove the fear that there might be something better which the customer didn’t find so far.

The reason why this aspect is extremely important in E-Commerce is that if the customer is not sure that the site has showed him all the products he should consider, he will be likely to look for other possibilites on other web sites. In that logic, ensuring a good comparison experience between the different products can lower the need to compare with other providers.

There are several approaches to help the customer find other products for comparison purposes:

  • Prepare a list of similar products for each product
    • advantage: no action required from the user
    • disadvantage: customer has no idea how this list was computed and might not feel it is complete nor adequate for him
  • Provide dynamic search filters (with counters)
    • advantage: customer can easily decide which parameters are important to keep and which ones are not (as he can decide which filter he wishes to modify). Counters are important as many combination can lead to zero results and should not have to be tried.
    • disadvantage: none really, except it requires purchasing advanced technologies
  • Escalate to the contact center
    • advantage: the customer might just need to hear from a real person that he is making a good choice
    • disadvantage: none really, except the cost of the calls and that not everyone will want to chose this option

Comparison is one of the most important issues in the e-commerce world today. The focus of the industry has been put on the meta-portal showing the difference of price between providers for the same product, but not in finding the adequate products to compare to within the product offering of one provider. This is another example of how the Internet world has accomplished things that were not possible in the brick & mortar world, but totally left aside other aspects which have been  proven extremely important in the real world, for the reason that nobody really knows how to handle it properly.


This post is not the final conclusion on this topic (far from it) and, if anything, it is more intended to show where the issues are coming from and to group them into a short 6 points list. I will elaborate more on the possible solution CEM (Customer Experience Management) can provide in terms of Information Access for each one of them more in depth in the future, but I hope you can already find the above useful and understand a little better what is at stake when someone tells you that you have customer experience issues with your web site.    Send article as PDF   

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *