CommonLounge Archive

Browsing vs. Searching vs. Discovery

November 29, 2017

Different people use sites and apps for different reasons. If you design for the wrong behavior, you won’t get the results you want. Hence it’s important to plan out your user flows keeping these three user behaviors in mind. Briefly,

Browsing is when you go to a store like Ikea to look at all the model rooms “just to get ideas”.

Searching is when you go to Ikea looking for a new sofa that will fit in your small apartment.

Discovery is when you find the sofa you’re looking for, and also buy those clever little nested end-tables because they are so damn clever and nested, and go well with the sofa.


When you visit an online store just because their products look nice or because you’re following trends, you are browsing.

A browsing user will glance quickly at most of the images, one by one, starting at the top left. They might skip some, but that’s okay. Photos that the user finds attractive will get extra attention (maybe even a click!).

To design for browsing: make scanning easy and keep the content quick and visual. Don’t overcrowd the page with too much stuff. Focus on the aspects of the products that create emotional appeal. If that’s style, focus on photos. If that is power (like boat engines or guns) then provide that info as clear labels. If that is brand names, clearly show the logos. If it is craftsmanship, magnify the handcrafted details. And so on.


When someone is trying to find something they have in mind, it may seem similar to browsing, but eye-tracking studies show a very different behavior: they are hunting.

A searching user will ignore a lot of products or pictures. Organization in your layout will help them systematically work through the options; they don’t want to miss any!

A Pinterest-style layout works against them because it is “staggered” and random. But being able to “filter” the options is often useful.

To design for Searching: Focus on attributes. Highlight the attributes that are most likely to be “critical” for most users, and nothing more. Ignore any ideas you might have about what looks “cluttered”… if the information is useful, it isn’t “clutter”. This isn’t an art gallery.

When the user finds what they want, they will click for more information (or buy).


Let’s say your users aren’t finding your amazing selection of antique kazoos, but you think they would buy them if they did. How do you create discovery?

The way you think people discover new things is probably the opposite of how people actually discover new things.

To design for discovery: Instead of relying on users to find new things, let them find what they are already looking for. Put the new stuff there too (and make it relevant) so they can “discover” it. This might feel like you’re hiding it, but really you’re making it as visible as possible to the right people.

On a site like Reddit, people come for the top-voted content — not new submissions. But if nobody votes on new submissions, there will be no top-voted content! So Reddit puts a few new submissions — from the categories you like — into the top content so they become visible, get votes, and start the Circle of Life once again.

The more you understand your users, the more you will know what to design for. Hence importance of User Research cannot be emphasized enough.

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