Address Book: Clumsy search behaviour when it comes to search focus

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
December 7th, 2006 • 2:18 pm

The search feature in Mac OS X’s Address Book suffers from one particular flaw: When you start a search by typing a keyword in the search field, by default the focus of the search is automatically the currently selected group on the “Group” column on the left-hand side.

Why is this a problem? Because it assumes that the user always defines the focus of his search before starting the search. In my experience, the user who wants to search for a contact in his address book assumes that the focus of the search will, by default, be the entire contents of the address book.

In most cases, he doesn’t want to restrict his search to a particular group of contacts. He will only want to do that if the search on the entire contents of the address book returns too many results. If that happens, then it will be necessary for him to narrow the focus of the search by selecting a specific group.

Unfortunately, Address Book doesn’t use this approach. On the contrary, it assumes that the user will always be careful to select the focus of his search first before starting the search. And if the user does not, then Address Book simply uses the currently selected group by default as the focus for the search.

Unfortunately, in most scenarios, the currently selected group has absolutely nothing to do with the search. It might be a group that the user selected two days ago, the last time he used the Address Book application, for something completely unrelated!

But if the user doesn’t pay attention to what the selection is in the “Group” column on the left-hand side and simply switches to Address Book and types a keyword in the search field, he’ll likely get zero results if the selection is not on “All” in the “Group” column, because it is rather unlikely that the contact he’s looking for will happen to be in the currently selected group.

This is rather problematic. Address Book tries to alleviate the problem somewhat by being “smart” about what the user does next. If the current selection in the “Group” column is a specific group and the user tries a search that returns no results, then the user does not have to start all over again, by first clicking on “All” in the “Group” column and then typing his search request again.

No, if a search focused on a specific group returns zero results, the user can just click on “All” in the “Group” column. This will cause Address Book to reset the “Search” field, which becomes empty again, I.e. the keyword typed by the user in the field disappears, as if the user had clicked on the little “(x)” button on the right-hand side of the search field to clear the field and exit the search mode.

But even after this happens, somehow Address Book still “remembers” what the user’s search request was, and automatically selects the first result that matches the request in the Address Book’s entire contents.

Obviously, I don’t think this is a very elegant solution, in particular because it blurs the line between the search mode and the regular browse mode in Address Book. I also don’t think that the default behaviour for the search feature should be to focus on the currently selected group in the “Group” column. I think that, when the user starts typing a search keyword in the search field, Address Book should automatically switch the focus back to “All” in the “Group” column. And then if the search returns too many results the user would have the option to narrow down the search by clicking on a specific group. This would not exit the search mode. It would keep Address Book in search mode, with the keyword and “(x)” button still present in the search field, and simply change the focus of the search.

Interestingly, Address Book refuses to work that way as well. If the focus of the search is on “All” to begin with, and then the user gets too many results and clicks on another group to narrow the focus of the search, Address Book automatically exits the search mode as well, and jump to the first occurrence that matched the search request in the selected group.

This is just as clumsy as the other behaviour described above. It continues to blur the line between the search mode and the browse mode. And it really is not very helpful in that there is no way to click on another group to continue the search with a focus on a different group. If you’ve already changed the focus of the search once, you’re toast, because Address Book has exited the search mode and forgotten what your search was for.

This search feature in Address Book could really use a lot of improvement. Apple tries to hide some of the complexity by not creating a separate user interface mode called the “Search Mode” specifically—like FileMaker does, for example. But this ends up affecting the usability of the search feature quite significantly, and not in a positive way.

I am afraid that, when it comes to searching for contacts in Address Book, Apple should go back to the drawing board and think long and hard about what users are most likely to want and what they are already familiar with. (There are many search facilities online that offer ways to narrow down the focus of a search when the number of results of the initial search is too large. So users are already familiar with this way to doing a search: Start with the widest focus, and then narrow it down if needed.)

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