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Online retailers and other website owners still have plenty of room for improvement, as some are still guilty of some avoidable usability problems.

Jakob Nielsen recently said that terrible websites are less common now, but an investment in improving user experience can still pay off, with average ROI around 83%.

We list ten common usability problems found on all kinds of websites...

  • Slow loading pages

    Slow loading pages are a killer - incredibly frustrating for the user and virtually guaranteed to have them clicking the back button.

    Webpages should load within a second ideally, or users will start to wonder what is going on, and think about finding a competitor with a better site.

    Most well known sites are pretty quick to load, but I have encountered a few problems with National Express's site, which was slow to load, while Currys can be a bit too leisurely at times - getting from the homepage to the LCD TV section took more than eight seconds:

    Currys slow loading

  • Poor navigation Navigation should be intuitive and easy to use, and should follow convention, especially on e-commerce sites. There should be no room for confusion.

    In the example below, a site which has been set up to 'promote usability and user-centred design' has committed the sin of using Flash-based navigation:

    Flash navigation

  • Dropdown menus

    Dropdown menus are useful for web designers as, by hiding navigation options in this way they save space. However, they are likely to get on users' nerves.

    Next drop down menu

Users have to point the mouse precisely to get to the section they want and, if the cursor leaves the menu, they have to start all over again. Very frustrating.

  • Clutter

    With the aim of increasing monetisation, some websites tend to add too many ads, social bookmark buttons, widgets etc, until it becomes very confusing visually.

    This is something a lot of newspaper websites are guilty of, though  most will get away with this because of the quality of the content:


This would be much more of a problem for online retailers, as such clutter could distract customers from vital links.

  • Poor checkout design Having got them this far in the process, a poorly designed checkout can cause customers to abandon their purchase.

    Sources of frustration for users include an overlong registration procedure, unclear checkout buttons, and any unnecessary distractions.

  • Use of colours

    Colour schemes are very important and, if you are going to deviate from the standard black text on white background model, then you need to be careful. 

    This is also an accessibility issue, so avoid colour combinations which cause difficulties for people with colour blindness and ensure high levels of contrast between text and background colours.

     Here is one (extreme) example of how not to use colours:

  • Accessibility

    Many websites contain significant barriers to access by not considering disabled users in the design phase - for e-commerce sites especially, this is madness, as it excludes a significant portion of the population (more than 2m people) from buying anything.

    The most obvious example of this is River Island, which launched an all Flash e-commerce site in March 2006.

    Despite complaints, River Island has yet to rectify these issues, and just displays an apology to its disabled customers, if it still has any that is:

    River Island apology

  • Poor site search 

    While most customers will use the main navigation, some know what they are looking for and use the search toll as a shortcut.

    This means that it is important that the site performs well for the kinds of products your customers will be searching for.  Avoid returning 'no results found', or incomplete results for popular searches, such as the Tesco example below:


  • Visual noise

    Visual noise, as in the example below, can distract users from what they are looking for, and cause them to miss important areas or links on a website.

    visual noise

  • Complex forms

    Complicated forms, for registration, checkouts etc are a surefire way of annoying users.

    It's best to keep forms as short as possible by avoiding asking for too much information, and stick to what is necessary to register, or complete a transaction.

    Other things that annoy users include the loss of inputted data when the back button has been pressed, making them start all over again - something I noticed recently on the new Whistles site.

Have we missed out any obvious usability issues? Let us know what annoys you...

Related research:
Web Design Best Practice Guide  

Related stories:
Top 10 most common e-commerce mistakes

Graham Charlton

Published 11 March, 2008 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is the former Editor-in-Chief at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin or Google+

2565 more posts from this author

Comments (1)



Your example of Tesco Direct's search for Wii games is unfair -- it doesn't sell them in the first place.

over 16 years ago

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