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Give examples

If your advanced search offers Boolean choices, such as AND, OR, NOT, make those into dropdown choices, so someone can build a query without guessing about the punctuation and sequence. But in addition to the dropdown choices, give examples, right on the search page. Complex filters are great on large sites, but you need to tell people a little story with each choice.

Start by saying what someone wanted. "If you wanted to find a book by an author whose last name is Price, and you know you don't want books by Willard Price…" You are posing the scenario. When people know what the purpose is, they understand the next part of the example much better.

Show the actual syntax. Continue your story with Part Two: the actual action taken. "You would type Price NOT Willard."

Finally, Part Three of your example describes the results, so visitors can see what effect that action had. "You would get a list of all books by authors whose last name is Price, other than Willard Price."

Three parts, then: 1) scenario 2) action 3) results.

Related article

Creating customer assistance that actually helps, from Hot Text: Web Writing that Works (2002, PDF, 993K, or about 18 minutes at 56K)


This tiny narrative helps people see how their own purpose might gibe with the imaginary character, and, if it does, they then discover what action they should take, and, just in case they are still in doubt, they can confirm that the results are what they would expect.

Use examples wherever you know that customers find the process metaphysical--so abstract that only mathematicians and logicians think it makes sense.

Here are a few times when you should consider adding examples, right on the page: when users are...

  • Configuring a web application
  • Filling out a user profile
  • Thinking about whether to subscribe
  • Choosing a product
  • Checking out

Now let's see, I inserted Leg M into Slot M, but...


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