The Death of the Separate Search Bar

Over the past few years, browser design has tended more and more to the minimal side.  This is in general good – the more the browser gets out of my way, and allows me to just look at the web, the better.  I am however increasingly frustrated by one change that seems to have taken hold as a “standard” feature of browsers.  That is, the unified search and URL bar.

The Good

I can see where browser makers were coming from when they made this change.  They were clearly thinking something along the lines of this:

  • Novice users don’t know what a URL is, what they want is to type something in, and get to it, quickly, they shouldn’t have to make a decision about which box to type their something into.
  • I can also see a very thin argument that the extra push of the tab key to get to the search box costs an advanced user a tiny amount of time.  Personally, I do not believe there’s any significant gain in this at all, as pushing tab after opening a new tab is easily embedded in a user’s muscle memory.  The actual time spend doing this is tiny tiny fractions of a second.

Beyond these two points though, I don’t really see any reason why the search and URL bar being unified is beneficial.

The Bad

There are unfortunately several draw backs to the unified bar:

  • First and foremost is the behaviour when I typo a URL.  What I end up with is a bunch of stuff loaded across my connection, and a fairly clunky UI experience while this is happening.  I don’t know a single browser that doesn’t get a little choppy in the UI department as a page loads, or mess about with the contents of the URL bar so that you can’t really edit it (as your changes are likely to be overwritten).  Loading a bunch of content when I typo something was not a good idea when my ISP’s DNS server did it for me 10 years ago, and it’s still not a good idea now, even if the page loads faster.  Instead, I simply want to see a “hey, that page doesn’t exist” error, and I want to see it fast.
  • Secondly, is the behaviour of the prediction of what I want to type in the URL/search bar.  With separate bars, I could reliably predict that if I typed “new” into the URL bar, I could press down, and then return to get to “news.bbc.co.uk”.  If I typed “new” into the search bar, I could predict that I could press down, and get some sane google predict results.  With a unified bar though, I can do neither of these, I must instead study the results to find the thing I actually want.  There seem to be 3 approaches to how to show the likely things you might want to load:
    1. Show google predict results first – this makes it impossible for me to quickly access results from my history.
    2. Show results in my history first – this makes it very hard to use google predict.
    3. Show a best guess at what I might want first – this makes the behaviour impossible for me to predict, and hence very slow to use.

Conclusions

The two serious negative impacts combined, I believe more than offset the gain from not having to press tab to reach the search bar.  The unified bar approach requires the user to think more, to read more, and to deal with unpredictability.  Worse, it causes significant delays when the user gets all that extra load wrong.

I can still see a strong argument for novice users to be given one bar that covers all functionality, but for even slightly advanced users, the unified search and URL bar is a terrible bit of UI design.