Filters: Is there a better way?

17 Jul 2009 - 2:05pm
6 years ago
5 replies
4377 reads
Audrey Crane

I've been collecting and thinking about filters, and also watching
people (try to) use sites with various filtering schemes.

It seems to me that there's a limit to what you can do with a set of
filters such that the filters are 1) noticed, 2) clear and 3) not

The problem is that the larger the data set you're trying to help a
user parse, the more tempting filters are, and paradoxically the more
overwhelming/less-usable they become. Smaller filter sets like seem to be ok, but they work less well for larger data
sets. Sites start to "hack" them into being usable, introducing
AJaX/wizard mashups ( is trying one now, but I've seen this
in several places, a callout that points out the filters and tells
the user where to start), but keeping with the old adage that help
should always be available but never necessary, I'm unsatisfied with
the solution.

I'm wondering if folks think:
- that filters break down at a certain point
- if so, whether we can make a generalization about where that is for
most users
- ...whether there's a better tool beyond that point
- ...if we need to invent something new here
- if not, why I'm seeing so many people struggle with what now seems
like a fairly standard practice
Or other thoughts about this?

Watching users come across what I thought were logical and perfectly
clear filtering solutions and then close the page in a panic as being
"too complicated" reminded me (again) of why we do usability, but I
begin to despair...


17 Jul 2009 - 2:50pm
Severin Brettmeister

Hi Audrey,

I have been confronted with exactly the same issue, recently.

In a professional environment, where people are working regularly with an application and need to filter tons of different information, I found the following solution very useful:

The technique has been improved, in the meanwhile, but the approach is still strong.

Of course, this is not a "beginner-friendly" feature...

All the best,

17 Jul 2009 - 3:26pm

Confronted with the exact problem in my current position, I reinvented
their filters along the lines of Severin's link. I kept the fields
"minimized" until their needed. For very long lists (thousands of
options), I pull the options via ajax auto-suggest fields. For
limited option columns, I pull the options from the table into a
dropdown list.

I think filters break down when you start thinking of a complex
query. They don't work at all if the options don't make sense in
the first place. I wouldn't want to start filtering on the perfect
vehicle by first selecting the number of wheels and steel vs
fiberglass...make some smart guesses on what I want, then let me
filter on the 2-3 variables that make a big difference.

There's a tendency to make the web page do everything you could
conceivably want, when the number of conceivable wants is actually
very small.

I really like's job search filters. They're not perfect,
but they're out of the way, and took only a few minutes to figure

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20 Jul 2009 - 2:54pm
Audrey Crane

Thank you for your thoughts...

I cannot help but think that we're missing a much-needed tool here
for beginners who need to make a complex query.

Shopping for cars, televisions, houses, vacations... All require this
method. People shopping are probably beginners, since they probably
don't make these purchases daily.

For a car, for example, I could conceivably care about all kinds of
things, 10s, if not 100s:
- color
- horse power
- make / model
- where it's made
- sun roof
- leather seats
- etc. etc.

I wonder if the solution musn't by necessity start with a query and
then break that down into "The Filters we Think You Care About" /
More filters (maybe the more filters is even a query field). In that
way, beginners aren't confronted with a complex filter they don't

I'll post here if I find or come up with any solutions that are

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Posted from the new

23 Jul 2009 - 12:51am
Audrey Crane

uBid has an interesting solution: they appear to create filters out of
the search results once a user has narrowed the query somewhat, and
then they treat it almost like customizing ("Choose Your New Car"):

(If you click Edit on any of the choices under "Modify Your Car",
the things you can choose, like color, seem to be based on what's
available in 94103 on a Ford Focus.)

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27 Jul 2009 - 3:22pm

Hi Audrey,

First, I just want to be sure I'm clear about what you're talking
about. Are you referring to filters similar to those in the following

John Lewis (Left hand filter/sub nav)

Tiso (Right hand filter/sub nav/tagged breadcrumb)

Second, are you saying that in the user research you have carried
out, novice/lightweight internet users find it difficult to
understand these methods of interaction?

Third, with regard to your car filters examples, surely it would be
better for the majority of users to have the key filters
listed/opened/indicated as primary filters so that the site benefits
the majority of users.

At the first step, it's not important to disclose all
options/filters in one go. It's probably better to have "sensible
default" filters to let people dive in, while supporting power users
with additional and deeper filters later in the process.

A faceted search lets you navigate through tags or attributes of a
product. That's a pretty powerful way to navigate through a data
set. Supporting the UI through good copy writing and labelling should
help the users. Terms like "Refine your search" or your "Choose
Your New Car" example are good.

While, I understand you have problems with filtering (that is if I am
properly understanding your original point!), I'm not sure seeking an
alternative to faceted search is the best route to take.

Faceted search/navigation/browsing works for many very successful
ecommerce sites. If it was broken, they wouldn't use it.

Finally, a good visual design will address your issues of affordance
and clarity.

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