There's never a facet around when you need one


I saw an interesting bit of technology at CHI 2009 this year. Yevgeniy Medynskiy, Mira Dontcheva, and Steven Drucker published a paper called “Exploring Websites through Contextual Facets” where they tried to solve the problem of iterative query formulation in online faceted search. They observed that search interfaces that allowed the user to specify multiple criteria to find desired objects often removed the search interface when the user selected item details. In addition, they observed vocabulary mismatch for aspects in the search interface vs. the details view. Finally, people often landed on item pages through external search engines, and couldn’t easily get to an in-site search interface with their search context preserved.

Their solution, called contextual facets,  was to augment the UI of the search item to allow the user to iterate the query by manipulating aspects of the found item.  The paper reports on their evaluation with Yelp data and resulting redesign. This work is interesting in that it reveals poor design of aspectual search common on many sites, but the solution is problematic because it doesn’t integrate seamlessly into the built-in search, and can only operate with an approximation of the facets and associated values that it can identify by crawling the site.

It does point out that web site designers need to pay more attention to how their sites are used. The eBay search interface, for example, supports faceted filtering of search results reasonably well, but that iterface goes away when the details of a product are selected. It seems like a straight-forward modification to incorporate the facet pane into the details view. Perhaps if they read Daniel Tunkelang’s book


  1. Thanks for the plug! I noticed the paper in the proceedings and was curious about the approach. It sounds like it’s a nice idea but a bit of a hackish implementation.

  2. It’s a hack to the extent that it is not truly integrated with the service. But the utility of the hack is a strong indication that search interfaces should adopt the focus+context pattern. This is true for full-text search as well. So many interfaces disregard the document (focus) in favor of the context (postings list) while the query is being refined, and then throw out all that good stuff when showing the document.

  3. […] Generalized Formal Models for Faceted User Interfaces (Clarkson, Navathe, Foley) I wonder if this is related to the “Exploring Websites through Contextual Facets” paper I blogged about earlier. […]

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