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Usability problems

Many sites on the Web are not very usable. Some common problems are:

Site identity

Every page on the Web should ensure that users can understand its purpose. Even users not in the target audience should be able to figure out enough about the site to know whether it has content they are interested in or not.

This can usually be achieved by a few sentences on the front page, linked to a more detailed "about this site" section.

Many, many sites on the Web neglect this basic duty, which means that users' time is wasted as they look around the site trying to gain some sense of its purpose - which could have been simply summarised to them from the start.

Speed problems

Lots of Web sites are unnecessarily slow to use. Speed problems can be caused by a variety of issues, most of which are within the control of the site designer.

Plug-ins etc.

Sometimes sites require plug-ins. There are two general guidelines about this:

Even if you are only using one of the common plug-ins, there will probably still be a significant proportion of the audience that cannot see the site, so it is good practice to provide an alternative version of content. (You may also find that many people still prefer a non-Flash version, even with Flash installed.)

Difficult navigation

Some sites have navigational controls which:

To be usable, a site needs to include clear navigational facilities so that users can usually understand which link they will need to follow for a specific task.

In addition to choosing clear, comprehensible navigation links, it can can help to give clear descriptions of each option from the front page.

Poor readability

Sites are often difficult to read because:


Often pages are rather ugly, because the designer used techniques that they weren't competent in.

An important rule of life - "know the rules before you break them" - applies to graphic design too. (There are plenty of other relevant platitudes: "don't run before you can walk", etc.)

The important idea to understand is that pages do not have to include lots of graphics, complex colour schemes, or interesting layout in order to look good. A page can still look good even if it is very simple. The problems mostly occur when people attempt complex designs.


Sites often contain, or prioritise, information which isn't relevant to their users, because the designer (or their company) thought it important.

For example, recently one financial company, on signing a business deal with American Express, placed an abbreviated form of their press release on the front page of the site, so that people had to click through it before they could get to other information!

This was not at all helpful and might put users off. While such information might encourage people to buy from the company, it would be more appropriately placed in a "why should you buy from us" section, or similar - somewhere that people will go if they are looking for information on their purchasing decision.

The basic message is that, although a Web site probably is intended to fulfil objectives for the designer or the company, it must meet the user's requirements first and foremost. Web sites are about users, and if users are annoyed or put off by a site, it makes no difference whether the marketing department's message got through: they're gone.

Non-standard design

Sometimes page designers, because they have spent days or weeks working on a site, forget that users will probably only spend a few minutes there. There's an important rule to bear in mind:

If you're tempted to put text on the front page, explaining how to use the site in some way (for example "click the frog icon to hop back up to the top of each page", "you can return to the homepage at any time by right-clicking on the fluffy bunny icon and then dancing around your computer three times widdershins", etc.) then your site is probably not usable enough.

Essentially, anybody with even a little experience using the Web should immediately be able to understand your site first time, without needing instructions or explanations. This means following Web standards; for example, the word "Home" will usually provide a link to the front page, and the text "back to top" makes far more sense to most Web users than a frog icon.

You may be tempted to do some things differently from most Web sites: sometimes this can be a good idea, but as usual, it's best avoided unless you really know what you're doing. Web users rely on the experience gained from visiting other sites in order to navigate your site.

(Note: the frog icon example does come from a genuine site, although I made up the fluffy bunny voodoo.)


Some sites are not accessible because they miss out ALT tags or are impossible to use without Javascript. Apart from making your page unusable for the disabled, this can also result in other problems: for example, this kind of page is unlikely to work in devices with small screens, and it may not work even on TV-based web browsers such as WebTV or the Dreamcast game console.