Retail and faceted search

By Meriel Lenfestey

I’m in the market for a camera. My last camera was a 35mm film SLR – that was 20 years ago. So I began my quest excited and reasonably well informed about photography. My enthusiasm was led by my imminent opportunity for artistic expression – not by technical wizardry. So I naively thought I’d make a fast choice and get going.

A few websites and a few visits to photography shops later and my head was spinning; there was just too much choice and it was not presented in a way which supported decision making.

After resisting the impulse to run and hide I resolved not to be beaten, deciding that the end justified the means. I brewed a strong coffee, revised and updated my theoretical knowledge and read lots of reviews.

Then I was clear about what I ‘needed’ - but I’d gone too far the other way. I found that none of the 472 cameras currently on the market ticked all my ‘newly discovered’ boxes. My enthusiasm turned to disappointment and a niggling sense that I needed to wait another 20 years for perfection.

This was a poor experience exacerbated by the retailers’ failure to understand the customers’ needs and, more fundamentally, perhaps there is an opportunity to rethink camera design.

What could the retailers /independent reviewers do?

Help me narrow down

I need a way to start with everything and quickly narrow it down around my needs, using language I understand.

The primary filtering mechanism provided by retailers and review sites are by brand (Nikon, Samsung, Olympus etc.) and by camera type (SLR , compact, compact SLR, SLR like compact, mirrorless SLR, rangefinder SLR, 4/3, micro 4/3, bridge, ultra compact). I want to narrow down by size and weight, AF/ AE speed, lens quality, image quality, exposure / focus control, interface type, body form, battery life etc . These are the characteristics of a camera which will affect my ability to use it as I want to.

Help me build back up

After gathering enough technical knowledge to do this, and finding that nothing provided everything I wanted, I needed a way to quickly experiment with compromises. I needed to retain a sense of control by rapidly experimenting with lowering my expectations for various features.

The mechanism I’m describing is a faceted search interface – as used on many retail sites. It usually sits in a column alongside search results and consists of multiple check boxes for requirements to be switched on or off, or sliders for non binary choices, with dynamic filtering in the main page. This only works where it is led by a thorough understanding of the range of user requirements, and where the filtering is perceived as trustworthy and independent.

What could the manufacturers do?

Perhaps there’s a case for someone to develop a more customisable product modelled more on the world of computers and allowing me to build up the camera of my dreams. Perhaps my ideal personal combination of features isn’t technically possible yet.

Users’ behaviour with the faceted user interface described above would provide some really interesting research into the combinations of features people would want to include and the extent of customisation which should ideally be offered.

This isn’t an easy design challenge as a camera’s form is so much more closely associated with its function. It’s a design challenge our design team would relish.

In the meantime I’ll try to stay calm and choose a camera in spite of everything.

What do you think?