Online search has been proven to be the key driver for organizational profitability; not only in ecommerce (increasing conversions, etc.) but also in service (increasing case deflection, etc.). Yet, according to ecommerce benchmarking research, only 19% of sites have fully optimized their search function. That implies that most users aren’t receiving the best user experience (UX) when searching through their desktop or mobile device.

Knowing today’s users are expecting to find answers quickly, effortlessly, almost as the machine could read their minds, there are many features that play a role in improving users’ search experience: autocomplete, autosuggest, find as you type, etc. 

This blog article is all about adding an autocomplete option. There are some things to keep in mind when implementing an autocomplete attribute to maximize usability of the feature and ensure it’s helping — not hindering — UX. Below, we provide seven best practices for search autocomplete UX design aimed at helping you create a more functional and user friendly on-site search experience

Anything that helps users decrease cognitive effort to complete a task directly impacts their satisfaction and overall experience. Predictive search is one of the answers. It is a search online approach that helps to anticipate what the users need and propose them search queries.

By doing so, it saves the user time. Instead of asking the user to complete their query, it foresees plausible options and presents them to the user for him to choose.

Autocomplete, autosuggest, and type-as-you-find are the three core functionalities of predictive search.   

7 UX Design Best Practices for Autocomplete Suggestions

1. Functionality over Aesthetics

Aesthetics are important but should not take precedence over the usability and function of your autocomplete feature. Your user input field should be easy to find, use a text-entry search field, and leverage a visual cue like a “magnifying glass” icon to indicate that users can search. Adding a leading prompt inside the search field can help users orient themselves (e.g., “What are you looking for”), as illustrated with our own search box below:

A screenshot shows the Coveo search bar

2. Focus on UX and Placement

Autocomplete features should be designed to improve user experience, but they’re only helpful if the placement of the search box is obvious. In addition to being easy to find and use, the search box should be available on every page of your website. Put it in a place users expect to see it. Research supports a search field that’s integrated with your website’s navigation, generally placed at the top right or center of the screen. 

3. Avoid Common Interaction Issues 

Pay attention to common interaction issues like lack of visible options when the user first activates their search box or only showing limited suggestions until a certain number of characters is entered. Here are some other things to avoid:

  • Inadequate font sizes – While the exact font size may vary, autocomplete options should be easily readable. Test font sizes on different devices so you can see how it appears across a range of devices, operating systems, screen sizes. 
  • Cramped spacing – As with font size, adequate space for words and phrases contributes to improved readability. Font should be legible, with words and letters spaced in such a way that there’s no crowding. 
  • Small hit areas – In the context of autocomplete design, “hit area” is the region that a user can click or tap on to select an autocomplete suggestion. Make sure you avoid small hit areas which can lead to mistakes or frustration. An appropriately sized hit area ensures that users can easily select the suggestion they want.

4. The Devil’s in The (UX Design) Details

There are a few design details that can not only improve UX, but also ensure that users are more likely to find the information they need. Make sure to:

  • Keep the autocomplete list manageable – Too many autocomplete suggestions can cause analysis paralysis in users. When suggestions exceed around 10 items on desktop (and around eight on mobile), users either ignore suggestions or spend too much time reading through them.
  • Differentiate scope and query suggestions – Scope suggestions prompt users to refine their search by narrowing down the list of results. For example, if someone types in “trees” into a garden center’s website, a scope suggestion could be “trees that thrive in California”.  Query suggestions suggest specific queries based on what a user types into the search box. These should be differentiated visually (e.g., through distinct colors, font weights, or icons). 
  • Highlight suggested queries – Suggested queries should appear when the user starts typing and remain visible until the user selects an option from the autocomplete list. Highlighting the suggested query text helps users differentiate what the autocomplete is suggesting versus what they typed in. In the below example from Coveo’s search box, the user typed in the word “knowledge.” In the list of suggested queries, the autocomplete text is bold so it easily stands out from the user’s query. 
Screenshot shows related, autocompleted suggestions dropping down from a search bar

5. Adhere to Desktop Best Practices

On desktops and laptops, autocomplete UX should focus on keeping search uncluttered, enhance usability, and reduce user frustration/confusion. Best practices include:

  • Avoiding scrollbars – If the autocomplete has a fixed height, then it may force users to scroll through results. Scrolling within a search bar can be challenging for users. To avoid this, make sure all autocomplete suggestions are visible without scrolling. 
  • Lower visual noise – Visual noise like images, too many colors, and query separators can look cluttered and ultimately confuse users. Keep it simple with a limited list of suggestions that get users to where they need to be without too much fuss. 
  • Highlight the selected (“active”) suggestion – The active autocomplete suggestion is the suggestion that is highlighted or selected by the user. The user makes their selection by hovering the mouse over the term or phrase or using the arrow keys to navigate through the list of suggestions. Highlighting the active suggestion with a different background or text color helps distinguish it from the other autosuggestions.
  • Make search stand out on the page – Give your entire search bar including the autocomplete feature visual depth so that it stands out from other elements on the page. For example, give it a clear border or dim the webpage when a user activates search. 
  • Use title case – Presenting autocomplete suggestions in title case (or “headline-style”) makes them easier to read.

7.      Adhere to Mobile Best Practices

Autocomplete is a highly interactive and transient experience which can confuse and derail users, particularly when they’re searching from a smartphone or other mobile device. Adhering to best practices around design and usability is essential within a mobile context. Here are two guidelines to keep in mind:

  • Limit visual competition – On mobile, it’s particularly important to reduce visual competition from external elements like ads, chatbots, and images. Since screen size is small, your search bar is competing for limited space and user attention.
  • Maximize query space – Providing adequate space for autocomplete query suggestions is crucial on mobile devices. Design for visual depth and simplicity, use text wrapping, and obscure the last visible suggestion for optimal visibility of the active suggestion. Finally, it should be intuitive for the user to exit autocomplete by clicking an icon like an X or “Exit” button.

Practice Good UI Autocomplete Design

Autocomplete is an excellent way to optimize the search UX and improve the usability of your website’s search feature. But it’s also easy to overwhelm users with too many options or poor UI design. By adhering to the best UX practices for autocomplete on desktop and mobile, you can create an intuitive and effective autocomplete search utility for users.

Dig Deeper

Autocomplete suggestions are just one facet of a great search experience. Discovery other user experience best practices in our free ebook, The Ultimate Guide to Site Search User Experience.

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Ebook: Optimize your site search user experience