Search is one of those parts of onCourse that is never finished. Way back 10 years ago, search was not much more sophisticated than finding a keyword in a text field or two. These days users are spoilt by the power of engines like Google and their thousands of engineers who tweak the results daily. In onCourse Web we currently have these options:

  • Plain keyword searching which looks through tutor names, course names, site names and course descriptions
  • Searching on distance from postcode or suburb name with a bit of cleverness to decide whether you wanted Glebe NSW or Glebe WA.
  • Less than a certain price
  • Searching on tags, not just subject tags but also other tags (eg, level: beginners, advanced)
  • Time of day (evening, day)
  • Day of week (weekend, weekday or even just Tuesdays)

We give the user type-ahead options in the search box for course names, subject names and suburbs. This makes it easier to type search options and not mispell them. And we take all the above options, perform fuzzy matching on keywords. dogs = dog = canine = cat (Yes, I know they aren’t all the same, but for the purpose of searching, they are close enough to be helpful.)

Finally, we weight the results to ensure “better” results are near the top. That isn’t always easy, since one person’s idea of better is different to another person’s idea. But we do our best with the results to show users what they are hopefully looking for.

So what next?


Sponsored by work done for the Tasmanian Department of Education, this work is to make it simpler to show users what classes are coming soon. Take a look at our early mockups here. Focus on the top part of the page where you see the timeline. It shows classes from across the college according to starting date. In some cases there are more than 5 classes, on other days none.

I tried to balance the need for information with keeping the clutter out of the page. That’s why it is fairly light and grey, and a secondary navigation elements on the page so that it adds information without trying to attract too much attention.

New timeline showing classes starting on a given date

Refine search

Although there are options in the advanced search, we want to make choices more accessible to users. A ‘faceted’ search is one in which the user can narrow in on one aspect of their search results. You see it in Google results down the left under “More search tools”. Here we are putting it in a menu at the top. That way it stays out of your way and doesn’t clutter the view.

The drop down list of options will be automatically filtered to only show options which give you more than 1 result (if our search engine performance can handle it), and show you roughly how many results will be expected.

  • Show Locations: the same feature you have on your current site to show a Google Map of sites
  • Near me: uses the browser geo-location to determine where the user is and find classes near them. Obviously very useful for mobile devices, but still works well even on desktops.
  • Coming soon: only show classes starting the next 28 days
  • Weekend: anything on Saturday or Sunday
  • Weekday: Monday to Friday during the day
  • Evening: Any evening
  • Subjects: further filtering by subjects, only seen if the user hasn’t already filtered by subject. They may have performed a keyword search originally, so this is useful in the same way the filtering down the left is useful for this Ebay search

Refine search through a variety of options

I hope the above thoughts were useful to you. Any feedback or ideas on what works for your environment would be really useful to my ability to finalise the new design and begin the implementation.

Ari Maniatis