Autocomplete search is so ubiquitous on retail sites that it would be odd not to see it. But not all search boxes are created equal.

Baymard Institute, independent researchers on web usability, found that more than a quarter of sites have autocomplete design problems that cause usability issues. From the number of suggestions provided to the typography used in the suggestions list, there are a lot of ways autocomplete design can go wrong.     

That’s the bad news. The good news is that you don’t have to start from scratch in designing a search autocomplete experience that makes it easier and faster for users to find what they want — and purchase it from your site.

 Baymard’s research has identified the design elements that consistently create a smooth user experience. Below, we’ll show you some of those elements in action.

 1. Set autocomplete off from the rest of your site. 

To keep searchers on your site from becoming overwhelmed, use a border or shadow around the autocomplete box. This helps the rest of the site fade into the background so that users can focus on their searches. You may even want to darken the rest of a desktop site when the search box is being used.

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2. Minimize mobile distractions.

On the mobile screen, autocomplete gets less room, which makes distraction even more damaging to the user experience. Make sure that elements such as ads, chat icons, and navigation aren’t crowding your mobile autocomplete and making it unusable.

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3. Desktop: Limit autocomplete suggestions to 10

When it comes to autocomplete suggestions, presenting more options isn’t better. It’s just confusing. Displaying 10 suggestions is the sweet spot for expediting a user’s search. Showing more than 10 autocomplete suggestions (even if scrolling is required to see some of them) overwhelms searchers, and they have trouble choosing among them.

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4. Mobile: Limit autocomplete suggestions to 4-8.

Since mobile screens are smaller than desktop ones, it only makes sense that your list of suggestions should also be smaller. Some sites use scrolling to give mobile users access to more suggestions, but this isn’t usually a good idea. Most searchers will choose from among the first three suggestions.

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5. Clearly indicate that scrolling is possible

 If you do need to use scrolling with search autocomplete on mobile, it should be a clear option for users. Partially obscuring the last suggestion is one way to accomplish this. 

In the list of search suggestions for “cat food,” scrolling is possible, but that’s not evident. (The downward-pointing arrow actually takes users to a different field on the site.)

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6. Make scope suggestions stand out

Giving visitors the option of seeing results for their search term within a particular category is one of the most user-friendly things you can do with your site’s search box. In this example, the first suggestion is to view purses within the category Handbags. These scope suggestions are most helpful when they stand out typographically from the rest of the list. In this example, “Handbags” is in bold type.

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7. Use labels within the suggestion list

Similarly, it’s helpful to divide your search results into different sections — such as suggestions, product categories and brands. This helps users more quickly get a sense of their options.

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8. Keep display of suggestions simple.

Don’t go crazy with design elements in your autocomplete suggestions. A minimal approach is usually enough to help users scan and quickly comprehend the list. When used to excess, things like padding, separators, alternating row colors and even product images start to feel like distractions.

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9. Design mobile suggestions to be readable.

Autocomplete suggestions on mobile requireeven more care to design. The font size needs to be big enough to read easily, and spacing should promote legibility. Suggestions in lower case or title case are easier to read than those in all caps.

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10. Wrap text in mobile suggestions.

Have you ever searched for a product on a mobile site only to discover that all the suggestions were truncated and, therefore, impossible to choose among? The solution here is to use text wrapping. In this example, the various results for Urban Decay products expand to two lines so that the full name of each product is clear.  On a less well-designed site, the first result (for example), might have been displayed as “Urban Decay Naked…Pencil.”

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11. Highlight predictive part of suggestions.

Autocomplete search suggestions basically contain two parts:

  1. The term the user searches for. In our screenshot, that’s “towels.”
  2. The predictive text that completes the suggestions. Going back to the screenshot, examples of predictive text include “towels set” and “towels for kids.”

On some websites, the original search term and the predictive part of suggestions are styled identically. That makes it harder for users to quickly process the suggestions and identify the ones relevant to them. It also is not useful to highlight the search term (for example, by putting it in bold text), since it repeats in every suggestion.

Instead, highlight what’s different each suggestion. This creates an easily scannable list and speeds up users’ searches.

BAD VS. GOOD EXAMPLE


12. Show users that their selections are active.

So let’s say a desktop user is now hovering their mouse over the autocomplete suggestions or navigating them with their keyboard arrows. They pause on a suggestion that looks promising. It’s very important at this point that the user gets some visual feedback that their suggestion is active. This feedback should be more clear than simply turning the arrow into a hand icon when they hover over a particular suggestion. For example, the background behind the item they’re hovering over could become shaded. 

To help keyboard users complete their search faster on desktop, you can also copy the selection they are highlighting to the search field. They can then add any more pertinent details to the selected term before submitting it.

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Simply having autocomplete on your site isn’t enough to drive conversions. Using these best practices will encourage customers to stay on your site — unlike the almost 25 percent of visitors who abandon a site after trying the search box. And it will help them narrow their options and discover the items they want to purchase. In other words, improving the customer experience improves the bottom line.