Waitrose relaunched its online shopping service recently, and this prompted a hail of complaints on its own discussion board and several column inches of negative publicity in newspapers and blogs. 

The list of complaints ranges from performance speed to pure usability issues. Implementing change to an existing service can be difficult so we decided to test the new site with some potential users to see if this was a case of people reacting badly to something new, or whether indeed there was valid reason for concern.

As a comparison, we asked users to perform the same tasks on Tesco’s online shopping site and to give their preference.

Users were asked users to select five items to put in their shopping trolley: bread, eggs, sunflower oil, a red pepper and two tuna steaks, thinking aloud as they did so. 

First impressions

First impressions and opinions of the general look and feel were greatly in Waitrose’s favour. Whereas the Tesco site was described as too busy and off-putting, users described its rival as being cleaner, less cluttered and more ‘beautiful’. It is a design scheme that has clearly been well crafted.

But as in all things, the devil is in the detail and the slick design starts to fall apart when the user starts to interact with the page.

Users drew attention to the readability of product items being poorer compared to Tesco, which uses a uniform font size in its product listing for the name and quantity.

Also the increase/decrease quantity buttons next to items are very small on the Waitrose site which may cause problems for older or sight impaired users.

How big is your cupboard?

In the Waitrose structure, there are four main categories: ‘Fruit & Vegetables’, ‘Fridge’, ‘Freezer’ and everything else in ‘Cupboard’ which is broken down to further categories, the largest of which is the nebulously titled ‘Food’.

If you are going to use common household features as the basis of a site’s information architecture then you have to be very certain that they apply to the majority of people so it fits with their mental model.

I don’t know about you, but I keep quite a few types of fruit and veg in my fridge so these are not distinct categories to me and when I think of my kitchen cupboard I’m not thinking about shower gel, deodorant or loo roll.

The sub category ‘Food’ is misleading since this can apply as an overarching category to all the main headings.

On the other hand, Tesco displays more top level categories
and also shows large fly-out
on hover enabling users to scan categories and make a more precise

All these factors made for a quite difficult navigation
experience for the users we tested with on Waitrose. Having many food types lumped
into ‘Cupboard’ and ‘Food’ means a humble sliced loaf is four clicks away as
opposed to two on Tesco.

This clip shows someone struggling with this:


These broad categories on Waitrose make navigating between
them more laborious than on Tesco. This clip shows a user in the bread section
trying to navigate to the right category to add tuna.

The use of ‘Food’ as a subcategory also caused problems in using
the breadcrumb trail.

One user used the breadcrumb trail to navigate to another
section intending to find an item that was actually located in ‘Fridge’ but on
seeing ‘Food’ (within the ‘Cupboard’ category) she assumed the item would be in

Narrowing large results sets is poorly supported

Within a Waitrose food category, there are no helpful
sub-categories or other filtering options to help users make a quick choice.

the ‘Fish & Seafood’ section the only sub-categories presented are ‘Cooked
Fish’, ‘Fish Service Counter’ and ‘Prepacked Fresh Fish’, where tuna steaks are
located amongst fifty other items.

With only twelve results per page this makes
for a lot of paging through, or ‘quite a hassle’ as one user put it. There’s no reason why there can’t be different types
of fish listed here.  

The equivalent page
on Tesco has more categories up front such as ‘Pre-packed Salmon & Tuna’
and ‘Breaded Fish’ making the number of results easier to scan through and
results lists can be expanded to view more per page.  

This clip shows the same problem in the Waitrose bread

How many peppers in a kilo?

Adding fruit or vegetable items is not as straightforward on
Waitrose as on its competitor’s site.

When users eventually found red peppers
(bizarrely located in the ‘Salads’ category) they found that they had to know
the weight in kilograms of the number of peppers they wanted. Tesco enables the
users to specify the number of items required.


All these issues led to users giving up on browse early on
and relying on the search which thankfully gives good results.

However, the Tesco search goes one step further by allowing users to type in multiple items in a
list format and bringing back results for each one. Our test users liked this very helpful feature which matches the real
world experience well.

Tesco has given its users other useful tools to help users
and create a more realistic experience. In items listed in search results there
is a ‘View rest of shelf’ link so that if the user is close to finding an item
they’re looking for they can view the rest of the items in that category.

also makes suggestions for products that go with an item chosen. Whilst this is
clearly motivated by a business decision to upsell, users may find this helpful
in some cases.

No Clubcard,  no shopping

More evidence of the hard-nosed commercial machinery at work
behind Tesco is the fact that it does not appear to be possible to shop on the
website without signing up for a Clubcard. 

This is frustrating for those users who do not want to have their
details or shopping tracked.

Checking Out

Unlike Waitrose, Tesco does not stipulate a minimum order. This caused confusion to some users (myself included) who did not see the text next to the checkout button and wondered why the button was greyed out.

It may be better to leave this active and show a message on click rather than just rely on users reading the small text.


All of the issues found on the Waitrose site are preventable
and it makes me wonder if their design team did employ any user centred design practices at all.

Some issues should never have made it to the wireframe stage. For example, creating an information architecture to match how their customers think only involves performing a simple card sorting exercise to create the most meaningful categories and labels.

Navigation problems and the more detailed design issues could easily have been ironed out with click-through prototypes. Perhaps the feedback got lost in corporate strategy and politics in which case I hope someone will tell the story in a few years’ time.

On a positive note for Waitrose, its customers are heavily invested in the brand and their complaints are loud and manifold because fundamentally they are loyal to the brand.

They want the customer experience they have previously enjoyed online and in the stores to continue. If Waitrose really is listening then the issues highlighted here and on the discussion boards can be overcome relatively easily.

Above all, I hope these issues are not simply viewed as people reacting to change. With a range of online shopping options just a website away and with Ocado selling the same goods, customers will get their message across one way or another.