Summary: Most users are unable to solve even halfway complicated problems with search. Better to redirect their efforts into more supportive user interfaces when possible.
Users are incredibly bad at finding and researching things on the web. A few years ago, I characterized users research skills as “incompetent,” and they’ve only gotten worse over time. “Pathetic” and “useless” are words that come to mind after this years user testing.
In a recent study, for example, a user wanted to buy a highly protective yet girlish phone case as a gift for her daughter. While on Amazon.com, she engaged in random fishing expeditions into the product database, using search queries such as “pink impact resistant iphone 5 cover.”
This was by no means the worst query we saw that week; in this case, however, the user never found what she wanted. She tried a few query modifications — which most users won’t attempt — but never questioned her basic research strategy. Nor did she realize that Amazon uses a full-text search that doesnt understand the meaning of a query.