Cool stuff and UX resources

< Back to newsletters


As we celebrate Google’s 15th anniversary this year, and the positive influence it has had on the overall user experience of the Internet, it’s important that designers not mistake Google’s simple search interface for a navigation style that works well in all contexts. Although search is one of the four primary navigation styles we should consider for our Websites and applications, research shows that it is often not the easiest for people to use.

This fact is sometimes counterintuitive – our experience with Google or other popular search engines is that they make finding exactly the bit of trivia we are looking for quick and easy. Many of us fall into the trap of assuming that a simple search style of navigation will do the same for our intranet or ecommerce site as Google did for the Internet. I’ve worked with hundreds of clients in a number of domains during my 16+ years as a UX professional, and I’ve heard many a stakeholder or developer suggest that the best way to solve a poor user experience is to use a “simple and easy to use” search navigation style “just like Google.”

As UX designers, we need to be prepared to counter this argument when we know that a persistent or hierarchical navigation style is really what the end user needs to perform key tasks efficiently. Here are a few research results, new and old, that should help you with this task:

Even with frequent use, search is a cognitively taxing navigation tool

In a recent study reported in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain of older persons during search engine use to record brain activation – a proxy for cognitive load. The subjects were broken into two groups, one with extensive online searching experience and one with little experience.

The researchers found that both groups “showed increased brain activation” during searching. In other words, Internet searching requires significant cognitive bandwidth, even for those research participants who had been doing search on a regular basis for some time. The authors pointed out that this is unique – most other skills, once they become routine, actually reduce brain activation. The authors concluded that searching “remains a novel and mentally stimulating process, even after continued practice.”

Emulating google is it always the right choice for navigation
MRI scan showing brain activity during a routine activity, here reading text (left), compared with the increased brain activity during an Internet search activity for an experienced user (right).

Recognition over recall

It is one of the most fundamental tenets of cognitive science: it’s usually easier for humans to recognize something by looking for it than it is for them to think up how to describe that thing. A common example is learning a new language. After eight years of Hebrew classes, my daughters are able to read a novel in Hebrew but forget about carrying on more than the most basic conversation with them in their second language. Their brains are hard-wired to easily recognize words, but quickly recalling the right word to convey what they want to say is much more difficult. In the same way, it’s often easier for a user to drill down into an information architecture than it is for him to recall descriptors for use in a search term.

In picking the right navigation style, keep in mind that humans use their enhanced recognition capabilities to efficiently scan for and interpret words, phrases, and iconography. Navigation schemes that take advantage of this, such as hierarchical lists of links, are generally more efficient and easier to use. In fact, researchers Hertzum and Frokjaer found that browsing a hierarchical table of contents, when compared to using search queries, produced the best user performance. Keep in mind, however, that such results rely on well-researched information architectures that match end users’ mental models.

Design Implications

As designers we need to fight the impulse to use search as a primary navigation style whenever we are confronted with a site or application that our users are struggling to navigate. Here is the process I go through to determine if search should be primary:

  • First, take a step back and determine if the universe of content and functionality we are designing for is so broad that another navigation style would be beyond our users’ natural recognition capabilities. One sign of this is when you can’t avoid having more than ten top-level categories in your information architecture. If the information architecture is not incredibly wide and diverse, it usually makes sense to use another navigation style that plays to your users’ “browse and recognize” strengths.
  • If the information architecture is too broad, then we need to determine if we will be able to mitigate the cognitive load that searching demands of our users. Will users need to use frustrating iterative “trial and error” search strategies, or does the search engine being employed have access to the metadata it needs to deliver truly relevant search results? Does the organization have the resources to monitor key search results to ensure they match user expectations and corporate goals and objectives? If search is not implemented and supported sufficiently, then it may still make sense to maintain another style of primary navigation.
  • Google search’s ease of use and ability to bring the most relevant search results to the fore is certainly something to acknowledge and celebrate. However, it is important for designers to recognize that emulating Google’s success with search at a smaller scale is difficult and fraught with risks. Search, in general, is a difficult task for users that requires search term recall and doesn’t get easier with practice, and search engines require a great deal of upfront costs and ongoing maintenance to overcome this difficulty. In most cases it is better to play to our users’ strength in recognition and provide them with a navigation style that allows them to browse a well-researched information architecture to find what they seek.


Gary Small MD, Teena Moody PhD, et al. Your Brain on Google: Patterns of Cerebral Activation during Internet Searching. American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 17:2:116-126. February 2009.

Morten Hertzum and Erik Frokjaer. Browsing and querying in online documentation: A study of user interfaces and the interaction process. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction (ToCHI), 3(2):136–161, 1996.

Message from the CEO, Dr. Eric Schaffer — The Pragmatic Ergonomist

Leave a comment here

Reader comments

Art Zippel, CUA
Word & Brown


Interesting study you cited (Hertzum, M., Frokjaer, E., 1996). I would be very interested in knowing more about the different variables that are at play during cognitive strain as it relates to a UI.

I also loved your comment about recognition over recall. For the last 12 years I have been a DJ on the weekends. The dance floor is a great place to observe human behavior that is influenced by external forces. There have been times when I've walked up to someone and asked them if they have a favorite song that I can play. "Deer in the headlights" sums it up fairly accurately; they go blank. I know they probably have favorite songs; it's just that I have caught them by surprise and they aren't able to recall anything as they perform a cerebral search. I then provide them with a mental "navigational" frame work to help them with recognizing (finding) a favorite song. It goes like this, "OK, I know I caught you off guard, what is a style of music you enjoy? Great, now in that style what is an artist that you enjoy? Wonderful, I love [artist] also; now with all of the amazing songs by [artist] do you have any preferences between [song 1], [song 2], or [song 3]? I usually end up helping them recognize a favorite song and no one else in the room needs to know that a particular song that was played as a result of a "moderately-structured-dance-floor-interview" moderated by a certified usability analyst.

I think usability is a 24/7 life skill that you take everywhere you go.



Sign up to get our Newsletter delivered straight to your inbox

Follow us

Privacy policy

Reviewed: 18 Mar 2014

This Privacy Policy governs the manner in which Human Factors International, Inc., an Iowa corporation (“HFI”) collects, uses, maintains and discloses information collected from users (each, a “User”) of its website and any derivative or affiliated websites on which this Privacy Policy is posted (collectively, the “Website”). HFI reserves the right, at its discretion, to change, modify, add or remove portions of this Privacy Policy at any time by posting such changes to this page. You understand that you have the affirmative obligation to check this Privacy Policy periodically for changes, and you hereby agree to periodically review this Privacy Policy for such changes. The continued use of the Website following the posting of changes to this Privacy Policy constitutes an acceptance of those changes.


HFI may use “cookies” or “web beacons” to track how Users use the Website. A cookie is a piece of software that a web server can store on Users’ PCs and use to identify Users should they visit the Website again. Users may adjust their web browser software if they do not wish to accept cookies. To withdraw your consent after accepting a cookie, delete the cookie from your computer.


HFI believes that every User should know how it utilizes the information collected from Users. The Website is not directed at children under 13 years of age, and HFI does not knowingly collect personally identifiable information from children under 13 years of age online. Please note that the Website may contain links to other websites. These linked sites may not be operated or controlled by HFI. HFI is not responsible for the privacy practices of these or any other websites, and you access these websites entirely at your own risk. HFI recommends that you review the privacy practices of any other websites that you choose to visit.

HFI is based, and this website is hosted, in the United States of America. If User is from the European Union or other regions of the world with laws governing data collection and use that may differ from U.S. law and User is registering an account on the Website, visiting the Website, purchasing products or services from HFI or the Website, or otherwise using the Website, please note that any personally identifiable information that User provides to HFI will be transferred to the United States. Any such personally identifiable information provided will be processed and stored in the United States by HFI or a service provider acting on its behalf. By providing your personally identifiable information, User hereby specifically and expressly consents to such transfer and processing and the uses and disclosures set forth herein.

In the course of its business, HFI may perform expert reviews, usability testing, and other consulting work where personal privacy is a concern. HFI believes in the importance of protecting personal information, and may use measures to provide this protection, including, but not limited to, using consent forms for participants or “dummy” test data.

The Information HFI Collects

Users browsing the Website without registering an account or affirmatively providing personally identifiable information to HFI do so anonymously. Otherwise, HFI may collect personally identifiable information from Users in a variety of ways. Personally identifiable information may include, without limitation, (i)contact data (such as a User’s name, mailing and e-mail addresses, and phone number); (ii)demographic data (such as a User’s zip code, age and income); (iii) financial information collected to process purchases made from HFI via the Website or otherwise (such as credit card, debit card or other payment information); (iv) other information requested during the account registration process; and (v) other information requested by our service vendors in order to provide their services. If a User communicates with HFI by e-mail or otherwise, posts messages to any forums, completes online forms, surveys or entries or otherwise interacts with or uses the features on the Website, any information provided in such communications may be collected by HFI. HFI may also collect information about how Users use the Website, for example, by tracking the number of unique views received by the pages of the Website, or the domains and IP addresses from which Users originate. While not all of the information that HFI collects from Users is personally identifiable, it may be associated with personally identifiable information that Users provide HFI through the Website or otherwise. HFI may provide ways that the User can opt out of receiving certain information from HFI. If the User opts out of certain services, User information may still be collected for those services to which the User elects to subscribe. For those elected services, this Privacy Policy will apply.

How HFI Uses Information

HFI may use personally identifiable information collected through the Website for the specific purposes for which the information was collected, to process purchases and sales of products or services offered via the Website if any, to contact Users regarding products and services offered by HFI, its parent, subsidiary and other related companies in order to otherwise to enhance Users’ experience with HFI. HFI may also use information collected through the Website for research regarding the effectiveness of the Website and the business planning, marketing, advertising and sales efforts of HFI. HFI does not sell any User information under any circumstances.

Disclosure of Information

HFI may disclose personally identifiable information collected from Users to its parent, subsidiary and other related companies to use the information for the purposes outlined above, as necessary to provide the services offered by HFI and to provide the Website itself, and for the specific purposes for which the information was collected. HFI may disclose personally identifiable information at the request of law enforcement or governmental agencies or in response to subpoenas, court orders or other legal process, to establish, protect or exercise HFI’s legal or other rights or to defend against a legal claim or as otherwise required or allowed by law. HFI may disclose personally identifiable information in order to protect the rights, property or safety of a User or any other person. HFI may disclose personally identifiable information to investigate or prevent a violation by User of any contractual or other relationship with HFI or the perpetration of any illegal or harmful activity. HFI may also disclose aggregate, anonymous data based on information collected from Users to investors and potential partners. Finally, HFI may disclose or transfer personally identifiable information collected from Users in connection with or in contemplation of a sale of its assets or business or a merger, consolidation or other reorganization of its business.

Personal Information as Provided by User

If a User includes such User’s personally identifiable information as part of the User posting to the Website, such information may be made available to any parties using the Website. HFI does not edit or otherwise remove such information from User information before it is posted on the Website. If a User does not wish to have such User’s personally identifiable information made available in this manner, such User must remove any such information before posting. HFI is not liable for any damages caused or incurred due to personally identifiable information made available in the foregoing manners. For example, a User posts on an HFI-administered forum would be considered Personal Information as provided by User and subject to the terms of this section.

Security of Information

Information about Users that is maintained on HFI’s systems or those of its service providers is protected using industry standard security measures. However, no security measures are perfect or impenetrable, and HFI cannot guarantee that the information submitted to, maintained on or transmitted from its systems will be completely secure. HFI is not responsible for the circumvention of any privacy settings or security measures relating to the Website by any Users or third parties.

Correcting, Updating, Accessing or Removing Personal Information

If a User’s personally identifiable information changes, or if a User no longer desires to receive non-account specific information from HFI, HFI will endeavor to provide a way to correct, update and/or remove that User’s previously-provided personal data. This can be done by emailing a request to HFI at Additionally, you may request access to the personally identifiable information as collected by HFI by sending a request to HFI as set forth above. Please note that in certain circumstances, HFI may not be able to completely remove a User’s information from its systems. For example, HFI may retain a User’s personal information for legitimate business purposes, if it may be necessary to prevent fraud or future abuse, for account recovery purposes, if required by law or as retained in HFI’s data backup systems or cached or archived pages. All retained personally identifiable information will continue to be subject to the terms of the Privacy Policy to which the User has previously agreed.

Contacting HFI

If you have any questions or comments about this Privacy Policy, you may contact HFI via any of the following methods:
Human Factors International, Inc.
PO Box 2020
1680 highway 1, STE 3600
Fairfield IA 52556
(800) 242-4480

Terms and Conditions for Public Training Courses

Reviewed: 18 Mar 2014

Cancellation of Course by HFI

HFI reserves the right to cancel any course up to 14 (fourteen) days prior to the first day of the course. Registrants will be promptly notified and will receive a full refund or be transferred to the equivalent class of their choice within a 12-month period. HFI is not responsible for travel expenses or any costs that may be incurred as a result of cancellations.

Cancellation of Course by Participants (All regions except India)

$100 processing fee if cancelling within two weeks of course start date.

Cancellation / Transfer by Participants (India)

4 Pack + Exam registration: Rs. 10,000 per participant processing fee (to be paid by the participant) if cancelling or transferring the course (4 Pack-CUA/CXA) registration before three weeks from the course start date. No refund or carry forward of the course fees if cancelling or transferring the course registration within three weeks before the course start date.

Cancellation / Transfer by Participants (Online Courses)

$100 processing fee if cancelling within two weeks of course start date. No cancellations or refunds less than two weeks prior to the first course start date.

Individual Modules: Rs. 3,000 per participant ‘per module’ processing fee (to be paid by the participant) if cancelling or transferring the course (any Individual HFI course) registration before three weeks from the course start date. No refund or carry forward of the course fees if cancelling or transferring the course registration within three weeks before the course start date.

Exam: Rs. 3,000 per participant processing fee (to be paid by the participant) if cancelling or transferring the pre agreed CUA/CXA exam date before three weeks from the examination date. No refund or carry forward of the exam fees if requesting/cancelling or transferring the CUA/CXA exam within three weeks before the examination date.

No Recording Permitted

There will be no audio or video recording allowed in class. Students who have any disability that might affect their performance in this class are encouraged to speak with the instructor at the beginning of the class.

Course Materials Copyright

The course and training materials and all other handouts provided by HFI during the course are published, copyrighted works proprietary and owned exclusively by HFI. The course participant does not acquire title nor ownership rights in any of these materials. Further the course participant agrees not to reproduce, modify, and/or convert to electronic format (i.e., softcopy) any of the materials received from or provided by HFI. The materials provided in the class are for the sole use of the class participant. HFI does not provide the materials in electronic format to the participants in public or onsite courses.