- Autocomplete features are provided at 80% of e-commerce sites — yet only 19% get everything right when it comes to designing the feature for end users
- While many autocomplete issues are shared between desktop and mobile platforms, some issues are prevalent in one platform or another
- Following 9 autocomplete design best practices will help users navigate the feature and proceed with product exploration
Search “Autocomplete Suggestions” (also known as “predictive search”) has remained a popular feature to provide on e-commerce sites over the past 7 years.
Our 2021 e-commerce UX benchmark reveals that search autocomplete is provided on 80% of e-commerce sites (a decrease from 96% in 2019, but more than the 72% we benchmarked in 2014).
Despite search autocomplete suggestions being common, our e-commerce UX benchmark also reveals that only 19% of sites get all the implementation details right for the autocomplete feature.
As a result, many users will struggle to use the autocomplete feature to its full potential — and risk missing out on relevant products.
In this article, we’ll cover our Premium research findings on how to implement 9 UX best practices for autocomplete, across both desktop and mobile platforms.
Note: while our testing also led to extensive findings on the needed autocomplete logic, this article focuses exclusively on the design of the autocomplete feature, as that’s technically far easier for most sites to change. If you have Baymard Premium, see the Autocomplete research topic for all research findings.
3 Platform-Agnostic Autocomplete UX Best Practices (Applies to Both Mobile and Desktop)
The observed issues and solutions discussed below were observed during both desktop and Mobile e-commerce UX testing to apply in both the desktop and mobile contexts.
However, depending on the issue and specific implementation the impact can be greater in one or the other.
1) Keep the Autocomplete List Manageable
Both desktop and mobile UX testing revealed that providing too many autocomplete suggestions was observed to cause choice paralysis in users.
Indeed, whenever autocomplete suggestions start to exceed around 10 items on desktop (and fewer on mobile — around 8), users tend to either begin to ignore suggestions (at which point the additional suggestions become mere noise) or spend an inordinate amount of time reading suggestions (effectively halting their search process).
Therefore, the number of autocomplete suggestions displayed to desktop users shouldn’t exceed 10, while a target of 4–8 will work for most mobile users.
After all, in the end testing revealed that most users are likely to select from among the first few suggestions. Thus having more autocomplete suggestions won’t aid most users looking for search guidance.
2) Style Category Scope Suggestions Differently from Query Suggestions
Some sites provide not only query suggestions but also query suggestions within a category scope — for example, “red rugs in Bathroom”.
These more specific queries can be very helpful to users, as the search results will be more tailored to their specific category of interest.
Yet if the existence of search scopes isn’t clear in the autocomplete query suggestions, testing showed that they’ll be overlooked by many users.
Therefore, scope suggestions in autocomplete should be given a unique style so users can easily determine what is (and isn’t) part of the actual search query suggestion.
Distinct styles make the query suggestions easier to scan because users can visually distinguish query suggestion text from category scope suggestion text.
Notably testing didn’t reveal any particular styling to be better than another for category scope suggestions; common alternate styles such as using italics, a different font color, and text indentation were all observed to provide enough of a visual cue for participants.
3) Highlight the Suggested Query Text
Autocomplete typically offers query suggestions that are a combination of a match to the text as entered by the user (e.g., “Backp”) and a corresponding predictive suggestion (e.g., “Backpack”).
Styling the two aspects of the query suggestion uniquely can help users understand the distinction, while reducing the visual burden by helping them gloss over repeat words — in effect, giving users less to read.
So rather than repetitively highlighting the characters the user has entered in each and every autocomplete suggestion, emphasize the predictive portion to help users “fill in the blanks”, underscoring what’s different in each suggestion.
After all, the user is already well aware of the characters they have entered themselves.
This furthermore helps highlight the differences between the autocomplete suggestions, making it easier to scan the differences in the list and thus easier for the user to compare them in an instant.
4 Desktop-Specific Autocomplete UX Best Practices
The issues and solutions below are classified as “desktop specific”, though some issues also have the potential to occur in the mobile context. However, these issues weren’t observed during mobile testing.
4) Avoid Scrollbars
Having a separate scroll area within an already interactive feature like autocomplete is a recipe for increased user friction.
Indeed, our research studies show that inline scroll areas often cause a wide range of interaction issues and should therefore generally be avoided.
Therefore, scrollbars in autocomplete should be avoided in favor of simply having the feature expand to its natural size.
Avoiding scrollbars dovetails well with best practice #1 above — by keeping the list manageable, most sites can often avoid scrollable areas.
5) Reduce Visual Noise within Autocomplete
Many autocomplete designs are overly complex — going overboard with padding, separators, alternating row colors, and additional content (e.g., product suggestions, articles, etc.).
As a result, testing revealed that users are likely to become distracted, with a reduced ability to focus on the actual query suggestions.
In particular, desktop autocomplete features were observed to succumb more often to a “piling on” of added elements within the autocomplete feature due to the additional screen space available.
Therefore, to help users focus on the autocomplete suggestions lower the visual noise by avoiding unnecessary content and features within autocomplete.
6) Highlight the Active Suggestion
Failing to clearly indicate the active autocomplete suggestion makes it more difficult for users to know which suggestion is currently active.
During testing, a lack of visual feedback resulted in participant hesitation when navigating the autocomplete feature and even led to some mistaken selections.
Therefore, it’s important to apply background shading for emphasis on mouse hover.
This visually clarifies to users the active suggestion.
Additionally, invoking the “hand” cursor on mouse hover of the autocomplete suggestions makes it 100% obvious to the user that these are links that will perform a search if clicked.
Incidentally, over the years operating systems and major sites such as Google have trained users that autocomplete suggestions can be navigated, modified, and submitted with keyboard inputs.
It’s therefore important to support keyboard navigation — and do it in a way that aligns with user expectations.
More specifically, this means the up and down arrows should navigate the autocomplete suggestion while the return key should submit the currently focused suggestion. Ideally, the list also “loops” back to the beginning when the user reaches the end of the suggestions.
A detail that proved important during testing was to copy the suggestion to the search field when it received keyboard focus.
This not only helped the less-experienced users more easily grasp the autocomplete concept but also allowed the users to “continue” the suggested query, adding in further details before submitting it (e.g., adding a query qualifier such as “lenses” to a suggestion for “Nikon D7100”).
7) Design the Autocomplete Feature to Have Visual Depth
There are many components to a web page that vie for the user’s attention at all times.
In particular, ads, promotions, and other prominent features and stylings can make it difficult for users to get an overview of their options — and focus on the autocomplete feature when they access it.
Therefore, beyond adding a border to the autocomplete feature, darken the page background as well.
Darkening the page background while autocomplete is active gives it stronger emphasis, minimizing elements (e.g., ads, carousels, and other page content) that could distract users from considering autocomplete suggestions.
This brings the attention and focus to the autocomplete feature.
2 Mobile-Specific Autocomplete UX Best Practices
Similar to the desktop-specific issues, the issues below were observed primarily or exclusively during mobile testing, although some also have the potential to occur on desktop.
8) Reduce Visual Competition from External Elements
Elements that encroach into the autocomplete feature can compete for users’ attention, distracting users from devising their queries.
Bear in mind that mobile autocomplete’s visible suggestions are, minimally, often sandwiched between the search field at the top and the mobile keyboard below.
When other UI elements (e.g., sticky headers, the main nav, buttons, live chat features, “Install app” ads, etc.) display in addition to the autocomplete feature, it leaves an even smaller fraction of the screen available for the display of suggestions.
On the other hand, minimizing distracting elements can help users focus on autocomplete and move more smoothly into product exploration. (While the same general principle applies to desktop, competition from external elements wasn’t as observed in our desktop testing, likely due to greater available space for other design elements.)
9) Provide Adequate Spacing for Autocomplete Suggestions
If a user is unable to easily select the autocomplete suggestions, it becomes unnecessarily difficult for them to navigate the autocomplete feature.
During our mobile testing, autocomplete suggestions separated by insufficient spacing and styled in small font sizes made it difficult for participants to view and select suggestions.
Indeed, when inadequate spacing and small font sizes are combined, it contributes to mistaps that leaves some users puzzled upon arrival at unexpected results pages.
Therefore, to help resolve interaction issues within autocomplete, ensure suitable spacing between tappable elements, provide hit areas of an appropriate size, and use an appropriately large font size (all basics of mobile e-commerce UX).
Finally, presenting autocomplete suggestions in title case (or “headline-style”) makes for easier readability than all uppercase text.
Getting the Details Right for Autocomplete
Clearly, there’s quite a list of details to get right when it comes to designing the autocomplete feature for both desktop and mobile contexts.
This is quite natural, considering autocomplete features are interactive and highly transient in nature, resulting in a fairly advanced user interaction.
Designers do have some leeway when it comes to the aesthetics of the autocomplete feature, but because autocomplete functionality already confronts users with what can be quite complex interactions, it’s particularly important to adhere to best practices, as even minor deviations from these standards may throw users off course.
To recap, in both desktop and mobile contexts, autocomplete designs should adhere to the following 3 best practices:
1) Keep the autocomplete list manageable
2) Style category scope suggestions differently from query suggestions
3) Highlight the suggested query text
In the desktop context autocomplete should adhere to the following 4 best practices:
4) Avoid scrollbars
5) Lower the visual noise within the autocomplete feature
6) Highlight the active suggestion and allow for keyboard navigation
7) Design the autocomplete feature to have visual depth
Finally, in the mobile context autocomplete should adhere to the following 2 best practices:
8) Reduce visual competition from external elements
9) Provide adequate space for query suggestions
Yet our e-commerce UX benchmark shows that only 19% of sites get everything right — leaving nearly all users with suboptimal autocomplete experiences, whether on desktop or mobile sites.
Tip: you can also browse 446 different autocomplete designs from major e-commerce sites in our free Page Design tool.
This article presents the research findings from just a few of the 600+ UX guidelines in Baymard Premium – get full access to learn how to create a “State of the Art” e-commerce user experience.