Coverflow, like any other popular design pattern, is widely used and abused. It’s bling for your iPod and MP3 collection. It’s makes file browsing all fun and games. But please, keep it away from my search results. Just because it looks good doesn’t mean it works good. I seriously doubt that search result coverflows make it easier to find what I’m looking for. If you’re a company and you’re bent on innovation, don’t make the mistake believing that a different user experience is necessarily better. It’s more likely to be totally useless. Here’s why I think you should avoid search result coverflows.
Apple introduced coverflow as a highly visual and playful way of browsing music collections and computer files. The touch screen technology in iPhone and iPod Touch further amplifies the interactive aspect. It feels close to flipping actual physical covers. The popularity of coverflow is a testament to it’s usefulness, and it’s ability to make something as dull as file browsing at least a little more engaging.
Searchme were among the first search engines to present search results as coverflows. Web page thumbnails are displayed as covers, and you flip your way through the results starting with the highest ranking hit. The interface is visually appealing, even though the Flash animation is a bit sluggish. The thumbnails are supposed to help you determine how relevant each page is to your query. Clicking on a thumbnail takes you to the target page. Searchme looks good, but it’s not a good search user experience.
Thumbnail images don’t work for text. They work well for photos and graphics, but text does not provide enough visual cues to differentiate between miniatures. Web pages are still mostly text, menus and illustrations aside, and the text is vital when assessing the potential relevancy of a search result hit. Searchme is aware of this problem, and provides an optional text summary for each thumbnail, much like you would expect from any search engine. The fact that this option eventually became the default setting goes to prove that thumbnails alone are not a sufficient visualization of web search results.
Coverflow search results are ordered from left to right, deviating from established conventions. We have been trained to read search results from high to low, sorted descending on relevancy. It’s a spatial metaphor we are used to, but there is really nothing spatial about high and low relevancy. There’s no natural order in the real world placing more relevant things on top of other, less relevant things (although Monty Python would have it otherwise). Same way that placing things left or right of each other (like in a coverflow) makes no difference, either. But does it mean that coverflow should become a convention alongside the old, familiar list of search results? No.
The high/low spatial metaphor is very strong, and we use it all the time. We talk about tones having high and low pitch. We feel in high spirit, or we try to lower expectations. Left/right is undoubtedly a weaker metaphor. Since Arabs read from right to left, will they need reverse coverflows? How about Manga fans? And the left-handed? Perhaps they have a different sense of left/right relevancy.
Coverflow is a design pattern for browsing collections, not ordered lists. What do I mean by that? Items in a collection may certainly be ordered (sorted on title, date, file type etc), but there’s no implicit more than / less than relation between the items. A file is not more important simply because its name begins with the letter A. But a list of search results have such an order. The first hit is more relevant than the next one, and the one after that, and so on. Coverflows do not convey that difference in importance as efficiently as lists ordered from high to low.
And that is why coverflow makes no sense for search.