Searching Metaphors For DAM Systems

Modern DAM systems can provide several search mechanism to enable their users to locate assets. In this article, we describe three main user interface search metaphors used and some of their advantages and disadvantages.

Keyword Search

Provides users with a textfield into which a keywords are entered and a button to submit their query to the DAM application server. On submission, the DAM application server compares the keyword against all available asset metadata and returns a list of positive matches to the user. Most keyword search mechanisms support Boolean logic (the ability to broaden or narrow results found using search syntax, AND, OR, NOT).

Search Filters

Provides users with menus (or pick lists) of common criteria, derived from a controlled vocabulary or similar taxonomy. All assets catalogued with those criteria are return to the user. Users can select one or more of these controls to broaden or narrow results.

Folders (Directory Tree)

Provides users with a classic folder-based view (or directory tree view) similar to those encountered on common operating systems, such as Windows. Users select a folder, or sub-folder to ‘open’ the folder, returning a list of the assets inside each. In some systems it is possible to simultaneously select more than one folder in order to broaden results.

Each approach has numerous advantages and disadvantages, and often search metaphors are used in combination to provide users with broader facilities. Familiarity is also a factor to consider. For example, most users will be familiar with keyword searching due to regular use of Google or other popular search engines. Similiarly, most users understand folders because the metaphor is widely used on all operating systems, thus increasing ease-of-use.

In other circumstances, the nature of the DAM system itself may determine which search metaphor offers the best solution. For example, keyword searching can suit media assets which have text-based content, i.e. documents, such as PDF or Word files, particularly if the content of these files is automatically indexed by the DAM system.

Further, it may be beneficial to base search metaphors on existing models for the media type. For example, many commercial photographic libraries use a combination of keyword search and criteria filters (orientation, colour space, format, etc.) to enable users to locate photos and illustrations fit for purpose. One again, use of established metaphors assists users in getting to grips with the system, thus reducing user training and support requirements.

Which Metaphor Is The Right One?

There is no right or wrong answer when selecting the search metaphor which will best serve your user base, but it is useful to bear in mind who the users are and whether their use of the system will be enhanced by presenting them with search metaphors familiar to them.

Combining Metaphors

In many cases, it is more useful to combine multiple metaphors to allow users to choose the approach that suits them best. Over the course of their usage of a DAM system, users are often likely to either combine or change strategies, often in contradictory ways. For example, some users may prefer a simple folder based search initially to give an idea of the nature of the archive, but once familiar may find it faster to enter keywords and use filters to locate assets.


The best advice is to test proposed metaphors early into the development process to try and find works best with your target users. A wide variety of factors can significantly affect how different groups will interact with a DAM system and when planning an initiative, the results are often more effective if there are a range of metaphors and search features available.

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