Searching ain’t simple: solution

time to read 5 min | 845 words

On my last post, I descried the following problem:


And stated that the following trivial solution is the wrong approach to the problem:

select d.* from Designs d 
 join ArchitectsDesigns da on d.Id = da.DesignId
 join Architects a on da.ArchitectId = a.Id
where a.Name = @name

The most obvious reason is actually that we are thinking too linearly. I intentionally showed the problem statement in terms of UI, not in terms of a document specifying what should be done.

The reason for that is that in many cases, a spec document is making assumptions that the developer should not. When working on a system, I like to have drafts of the screens with rough ideas about what is supposed to happen, and not much more.

In this case, let us consider the problem from the point of view of the user. Searching by the architect name makes sense to the user, that is usually how they think about it.

But does it makes sense from the point of view of the system? We want to provide good user experience, which means that we aren’t just going to provide the user with a text box to plug in some values. For one thing, they would have to put in the architect full name as it is stored in our system. That is going to be a tough call in many cases. Ask any architect what the first name of Gaudi is, and see what sort of response you’ll get.

Another problem is how to deal with misspelling, partial names, and other information. What if we actually have the architect id, and are used to type that? I would much rather type 1831 than Mies Van Der Rohe, and most users that work with the application day in and day out would agree.

From the system perspective, we want to divide the problem into two separate issues, finding the architect and finding the appropriate designs. From a user experience perspective, that means that the text box is going to be an ajax suggest box, and the results would be loaded based on valid id.

Using RavenDB and ASP.Net MVC, we would have the following solution. First, we need to define the search index:


This gives us the ability to search across both name and id easily, and it allows us to do full text searches as well. The next step is the actual querying for architect by name:


Looks complex, doesn’t it? Well, there is certainly a lot of code there, at least.

First, we look for an a matching result in the index. If we find anything, we send just the name and the id of the matching documents to the user. that part is perfectly simple.

The interesting bits happen when we can’t find anything at all. In that case, we ask RavenDB to find us results that might be the things that the user is looking for. It does that by running a string distance algorithm over the data in the database already and providing us with a list of suggestions about what the user might have meant.

We take it one step further. If there is just one suggestion, we assume that this is what the user meant, and just return the results for that value. If there is more than that, we sent an empty result set to the client along with a list of alternatives that they can suggest to the user.

From here, the actual task of getting the designs for this architect becomes as simple as:


And it turns out that when you think about it right, searching is simple.