From Search to Serendipity

Published 8 years ago · 8 mins read

8 mins read

Have you ever tried to search something on the Internet and find too many information thus feeling overwhelmed by this amount of data? Have you ever just wanted to watch some videos, read some articles or glance some photos without having anything specific in mind to look for?

We’re in a period of transition. The search-centric Internet is changing and giants like Google are already facing this change with projects like Google Now (we will talk more about it later). We – as designers, developers and entrepreneurs – should aim to reduce the information overload on people, providing great content that delights the user while easing the burden to search explicitly for it. The aim is to bring Serendipity into play.

A foreword

From Wikipedia, Serendipity is defined as:

The accident of finding something good or useful while not specifically searching for it

or even better:

Serendipity is looking in a haystack for a needle and discovering a farmer’s daughter

On the Web, we have serendipity when we go on 500px and we find by chance a great photo while looking into our “flow”. Or if we go on Amazon Windowshop wth our iPad and the book we always wanted is displayed in the home screen. Or again, if we go on Twitter and we stumble on a really interesting conversation. What is common between all these situations? The fact that we weren’t looking for that specific thing, most probably we weren’t looking for anything at all, we were just “killing time”.

Bored now

Man using a smartphone in the streets

The mythical mobile “man-on-the-go” usage. Are we sure this is the main usage of these devices?

By looking at typical mobile (on whatever device) usage patterns, Google found out that can be broken down into three main categories:

  1. Repetitive now. The user checks the very same piece of data over and over again: examples include checking Facebook statuses, new Tweets, stock performances.
  2. Urgent now. The user needs urgently something very specific, like directions to the airport or the name of the song he’s listening to.
  3. Bored now. The user has time to kill and wants to spend it enjoying a good digital experience.

While these groups seems quite limiting (for example, what about people that are looking for content to learn?) they effectively show what people commonly do with their devices. In our case, the latter category – bored now – is the most interesting one. It is where Serendipity comes in play, where we can delight the user with unexpected and relevant content. The user has some spare time and he barely knows what he want to read/watch/listen.

However, also in the other cases we could greatly help the user by providing “just-in-time” relevant information, thus reducing the cognitive effort needed. Google now is an example of artificial serendipity applied to the first two use cases. Complex algorithms analyze your personal data to give personalized recommendations even before you need to ask them.

Apart from that, how we can design a product to foster Serendipity, without the needs to develop a complex technology like the one just described?

Serendipitous devices

In the bored now group the main user activity is casual information surfing: we can call it Leisure Browsing.
While Leisure Browsing can be accomplished on almost any device, there are some that are better suited for this particular use. Which ones? Think about it: what would you use when you have some time and you want to relax a bit? What is the mostly used device while sitting down on a train/bus and, above all, in the couch or in bed (or even the toilette)? Tablets of course.

an iPad used on the couch

A girl browses Flipboard while laying on the couch

Tablets are the perfect “killing time” machine:

  • They have enough screen estate to make the browsing experience painless and to present image-heavy content
  • Their form factor is ideal for relaxed contexts
  • Touch-based interfaces are (usually) easy and intuitive to use

Thus, if you plan to create an app/site that puts Serendipity at the center of its User Experience, remember that you should put an eye on designing the experience for these devices. However, what are the characteristics of such a design?

Fostering Serendipity

Serendipity doesn’t come by itself, it needs to be designed. If we want to create this magical feeling of semi-casual discovery, if we want to facilitate leisure browsing activities, we can use few techniques and learn from successful examples.

1. Go visual

The most effective way to provide striking content is through images (or videos). This is because we – as humans – react naturally to them: at the end we all live in an image-based – not text-based – world. An image effectively and quickly conveys its message and moreover it’s usually more aesthetically pleasing.

This seems obvious, but actually it’s not.

Flickr has provided for years a great service to photographers and amateurs that got the chance to store and showcase their work to the public. However, this latter part (showcasing) is where Flickr failed to evolve, mostly in its interface. We can compare the Flickr homepage with the one of its newer competitor, namely 500px.

Flickr home page

The home page of Flickr reserves few space for images

500px home page

500px home has big, beautiful images occupying the whole page

You can see how the 2nd site is much more image-driven. 500px uses big images, arranged in a masonry-style layout with infinite scrolling: a common feature in serendipitous, addictive websites (Pinterest I’m talking about you). No need to say which one is more aesthetically pleasing and encourages further exploration and content discovery.

2. A simple Information Architecture

A complex and deep Information Architecture may seem overwhelming for somebody who’s just willing to browse randomly your content. This is mainly because the user would need to take time and make an effort in order to understand this complex structure. Instead, keep a flat hierarchy with one or two levels, in order to encourage user exploration. Then use taxonomies, social tags or broad categories to organize and create horizontal connections between the content items. If it’s not possible to use a flat architecture, try at least to simplify the browsing experience by always presenting samples of content at every hierarchy level.

SVPPLY home page

The Information Architecture in SVPPLY is very simplified, with very broad categories and a layout that encourages product exploration

eBay home page

The architecture of eBay reflects the goals of the website. Deep and detailed product categories, accompanied by samples of content in the intermediate levels

Compare the IA of a Serendipity-oriented eCommerce website (SVPPLY) with a search-oriented one (eBay). You can see how detailed and deep are the product sections of the latter, while the first one presents broad and very few recognizable categories. Still, also eBay tries to enhance the leisure browsing experience with samples of content at every intermediate level.

3. A good starting experience

Leisure browsing is usually performed during relaxed time spans of our daily lives. However, that doesn’t mean that these spans do also last long. Indeed, the attention and the patience of the user are usually limited goods.

A direct consequence is that nobody wants to lose much time doing some setup phases. Thus, try to provide at the very beginning an already satisfying experience: do your best and then improve on that by learning from user behaviors, preferences, likes, social interactions, explicit settings, etc.

That’s why Pinterest suggests users to follow just after the signup or why Fancy presents popular items in the home page even before signing in. They’re making guesses and trying to give immediately the user something to browse, even if they know nothing about him/her.

4. Go Social

The Fancy is one of the hottest websites of the moment. Its core concept is “social shopping”: users can “fancy” interesting objects they see on the Internet and collect them in lists. What is the difference with Pinterest? – you may ask. Well, on this site you can also buy these objects.

The Fancy home page

The Fancy lets you “fancy” cool stuff from around the web and follow other people in order to find something cool to buy.

What happens is that you end up spending 1 hour exploring randomly the site, by looking at your followers lists or the predefined categories the site proposes, jumping from item to item. It’s a social shopping website that tries to make user buy products by focusing its experience on the serendipitous discovery of new things.

Quite a difference with traditional eCommerce websites that assume the user has a clear idea of what he wants to buy. Adding the social dimension make people feel a “human” touch behind what they find, increasing the possibility of a purchase.

Moreover, did you notice the ice-cream logo on the top-left corner? If you click on it, it will show you a random item taken from the collection. Quite a subtle cool feature that goes well with the “exploratory” spirit of the site..

5. Personalize

Use the information you have about the user to personalize its experience. There are tons of techniques out there – that fall into the “Recommendation engine” field – both simple and complex that can be used to give a personalized experience to the user.

Stumbleupon is a web service that shows pseudo-random sites picked from around the web to the user, that can therefore “stumble” on something interesting in a truly serendipitous manner. At the very beginning, the sites presented have nothing to do with the preferences of the user, that can only choose the broad category s/he wants to explore. However, he can put “likes” or “dislikes” to the sites he sees and this lets Stumbleupon learn and present content increasingly tailored to user preferences. In this way, the user will then have more chances to “stumble” on something interesting.

6. Content is king

A Pinterest board

Pinterest boards are filled with fancy and classy content, from wich we can easily get inspiration

To be very direct:

you can’t tempt the user to spend time on your content if your content sucks

No matter how nice and innovative your user experience is, the content will be always the last and most important thing evaluated by the user.

That’s why Pinterest has been so successful compared to dozens of other image tagging websites that existed before. By carefully controlling the access to its early users, Pinterest built its initial content base with quality, classy and fancy stuff. Products you may find on Etsy, designer clothes, classy furniture, exotic holiday destinations, good-looking food dishes, etc etc.

Thus, remind, always keep a special eye on your content, its flavor and its quality.


The shift from a search-centric web towards more serendipitous experiences has been going on for years but it has literally skyrocketed with the mainstream adoption of digital devices as a “leisure” platform. This change goes along with the introduction of tablets and ubiquitous mobile devices and the evolution of the computer as the center of our entertainment activities. These changes brought new usage patterns for digital content that focus on relax, leisure and lazy exploration.

Computers, tablets and smartphones are absorbing usage patterns of older media, like TVs and magazines, with experiences that become – in certain cases – more “passive”. No more only active searches, but passive browsing or casual inspiration (look at easyJet InspireMe). The techniques presented here, like focus on visual contents and social interaction, easy-to-use and appealing interfaces, personalization and great content are really important in this evolution.

An evolution where Design – more than mere Technology – is finally playing the leading role.