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The Usability Problems of

Published by Chris Coyier

Jakob Nielsen has written some damn smart things about usability, and his work has probably done great things for the web in general. You hate to beat up on a guy like that, but c'mon, it is beyond ridiculous to me to be a self-proclaimed god of usability and have a site as awful as his. I'm not the first one to say it, and I won't be the last. (Great article on a group makeover from 2004) People have been talking about it for years. Jakob even acknowledges it himself:

Redesigning it would take away the real value, which is that it stands out. But I'm probably the only one who could get away with it. I wouldn't recommend it to somebody starting out now!

Let's just poke a little fun and take a look at some of the usability problems:

Fluid Width (sometimes...) and Line Length

Seemingly randomly, some of the pages are fluid width and some of them are not. The ones that aren't have no control over line length, so you can stretch the browser window to the point the lines are un-readably long. Traditional wisdom puts readable line length at 40-60 characters. Just look at newspapers, they know a thing or two about readability. This is my #1 problem with fluid width. If you go fluid width, you need to address the line length issue gracefully.

Using UI Convention for Branding

Jakob's "blog" is called AlertBox. At the top of all article pages, there is a pseduo-breadcrumb navigation that acts as the sites branding. It in a yellow box, and because of the areas name, contains the text "AlertBox". Yellow boxes with "Alert" in them are a UI convention for a warning, as in, I have done something wrong on your site and you are telling me about it. It's kinda clever, I'll admit, but confusing a UI convention with branding is probably a bad idea, especially for an usability expert. It's like running a site called "The Scrollbar" and having a scrollbar on the side of your page (that doesn't do anything) for branding.

Search Issues

The search has some things going for it, like it's very easy to find and use and the results are passable. But it has some issues as well. For one thing, at 1024x768 monitor resolution, the first search result is almost all the way at the bottom of the screen. It almost looks like they tried to save some space by squeezing the font size down to a smaller size than is used anywhere else on the site. The categories are a bit confusing (e.g. What's the difference between searching in All Categories and General?). Perhaps the scariest is how you actually leave the site to see search results. You get redirected to for the results, and the URL contains the frightening .exe extension which is a red flag for many Windows users concerned about accidentally running software from the web.

It goes on...

Websites deserve at least a little design. Even if it's just some typographic touches to help give it some soul. The site feels completely un-designed, like you accidentally turned CSS and images off for this site. It just doesn't feel like a real website. The lack of a clear navigational area is off-putting and confusing.

But hey, it works...

While I do believe there are some concerns here and I certainly would do things differently, this is just a good nature ribbing for the sake of discussion. I'm sure Jakob could take one pass through this site and rip me a new one, starting with the load time. The site is essentially fairly useable once you start to spend some time on it, and I'm sure screen-reader folks love it. The other thing it does is get people talking about it, which is always good for attention.

"I made a salad here last week that people are still talking about. Look at us! We're talking about it!"

-Peggy Hill


  1. It sounds like, to quote Hank Hill, you’re saying:

    “That boy ain’t right!”

  2. Permalink to comment#

    Thank you! It is about time people start taking on the tyranny of I wish my govt. clients had never heard of it – a little bit of knowledge…! that! At best it should be a trade secret.

    And yes, it is the sorriest looking bare bones bore me to death site ever

  3. jim Stiegal
    Permalink to comment#

    Don’t get too cocky there Chris. You’re a nobody compared to Jakob Nielson and probably always will be. You’re not as hot as you seem to think. What’s next? Are you going to critique Dan Cederholm’s website? Is that not good enough for you?

  4. @Jim: What I read off your comment is ‘How dare you criticize God! Are you going to critique Jezus…’ I must admit that after reading the article I think Chris made some good points and I certainly didn’t find the article ‘cocky’, and if you don’t see that go back to reading a book.

  5. adam
    Permalink to comment#

    “Don’t get too cocky there jim Stiegal. You’re a nobody compared to Chris and probably always will be. You’re not as hot as you seem to think. What’s next? Are you going to critique Steve’s website? Is that not good enough for you?”


  6. kelly
    Permalink to comment#

    Nicely done. Although I will agree that Neilson has done some awesome work with regards to usability, his website drives me insane. Far too many of my clients use his website as an example of “good usability” simply because of the author.

  7. Permalink to comment#

    Couldn’t agree more. How he can go around claiming to be the web’s usability guru with a site like that, I have no idea! Seriously dude, it’s not 1998 anymore.

  8. jim Stiegal – all around nice guy

  9. Shane
    Permalink to comment#

    Everyone CHILL. What happened to Freedom of Speech? Chris’ critique is valid. This is apart of design. I haven’t this sort of negativity from others who critiqued Facebook, Delicious, Yahoo, BBC etc redesigned their sites.

    Nielsen has made a TONS of cash with his usability expertise and books. You’d figure that he would spend some money to redesign his site and bring it into the 21st century and show off his ability to put his principles into practice with a real site!

  10. @Shane: I agree

  11. @Shane – It seems the only person who took exception to Chris’s critique was jim, which he has every right to do. He just wasn’t exactly nice about it. Unfortunately with this comment I’m feeding the troll twice…

  12. I think all of your points are valid, but the one thing that really peeves me off about his site is it doesn’t have RSS. Sure I get notified via email when he makes a new post – but dear god its not 1999 anymore and its not like its a hard thing to do. I could even forgo my annoyances with the design if he just added RSS.

  13. lowell
    Permalink to comment#

    haha at all the criticism..

    let the man be, he’s just lookin to hook up a little traffic and give us a semi-interesting article to read while he’s at it.. no harm done.


  14. Interesting post. Totally agree with most of it, especially your observations about the search facility – scary! However, I have one comment relating to:

    Seemingly randomly, some of the pages
    are fluid width and some of them are not.

    It’s not random at all. A quick look at the archive shows that posts on or before May 1 2006 are fluid width, while those after are fixed width.

    Of course, it’d be much easier for you to have discovered that if he had a clear menu with a link called Archive! :)

    Joshua also makes an excellent point – he needs to add a feed to his site. Unthinkable in this day and age

  15. Permalink to comment#

    Yes it is a bad website. Everyone can see that. Even if you knew nothing about usability you can see that the page doesn’t do what he keeps trying to sell!

    But.. i think it’s more about the content. He probably thinks being the person that he is, he now doesn’t need to make it usable because it simply has great content.. But, i don’t know about you guys.. i can never last more than a minute on that website as it’s just painful to the eyes…….

  16. Permalink to comment#

    I think that the relevance of Jakob Nielsen’s advices may be passè.

    When I discovered his site in 2000 (I think) I felt like I struck gold. Websites back then were mostly horrible, and few “rules” existed regarding usability. Nielsen was much needed back then, but nowadays the web is much more mature.

    I started to notice that Nielsen “lagged” after a while, he couldn’t keep up with the trends following the boom of rich web sites (web 2.0?) around 2004/2005. Sites like youtube, facebook, delicious and so on really broke many if not most of Nielsen’s rules and still were hugely successful. As did blog platforms like wordpress and blogger.

  17. jim Stiegal
    Permalink to comment#

    It seems the only person who took exception to Chris’s critique was jim, which he has every right to do. He just wasn’t exactly nice about it. Unfortunately with this comment I’m feeding the troll twice…

    Andy, not being a troll. Just expressing my opinion, thats all.

  18. jim Stiegal
    Permalink to comment#


    jim Stiegal – all around nice guy

    That really made me lol

  19. It’s about time that site got a redesign, I say. I’m big on usability, don’t get me wrong, but I find boring and dated. The content might be great, but sometimes a good look can go a long way to making people actually read the content.

  20. Permalink to comment#

    I hate to say it but a lot of people out there with good advice usually don’t take their own advice. It seems like they know or think they know how to do things on web usability and are too lazy or just don’t really know how to do it.

    I have seen some great “information sites” that seem to have good information on them about usability but their own site can’t even pass for a person who is just learning how to write HTML for the first time. If a person’s site does not have a good user interface then I tend to lose interest when they start talking about the importance of usability. It is pretty bad. Your own site should be the bread and butter of what you are trying to explain as an example. If your site looks like a beginner developer or designer did it, your credibility is completely thrown out the window

  21. I agree with what Chris is saying here. I am far from an expert on web usability, and could probably use some advice on making my own site more user friendly, but to me is terrible. Honestly, it looks worse than somthing my 14 year old sister could design.

    I have to admit that I hadn’t heard of the site before reading this article so I cannot comment on the content but I am going to have a read of it as like I said I certainly have a lot to learn when usability is concerned.

  22. Permalink to comment#

    If something works, why change it? Of course, like Chris says in just a few more words, there’s ways of improving The problem, at least for me, is that I rather like it, on a nostalgic level.

    I know when I read Jakob Nielsen. But you should never take something for granted, even when it comes from such a usability guru as Nielsen. Show some skepticism, learn and improve.

  23. Permalink to comment#

    And I completely forgot: Chris, why didn’t you create more content for this article, for instance with mock-ups showing improvements for the different pages? I’ve tried before, but it’s hard if you want to keep it simplistic…

  24. It’s like running a site called “The
    Scrollbar” and having a scrollbar on
    the side of your page (that doesn’t do
    anything) for branding.

    LOL. Single best observation of the entire article.

  25. Permalink to comment#

    I think the point is there is no denying the fact that Jakob is an awesome usability expert… BUT there is no reason why things can’t be usable AND have a great design and I think Mr. Neilson should take a moment to consider this fact and put a little punch behind his words with a kick-ass usable design. I think by having such a plain (ok, ugly) site may be hurting him a little here.

    And I think the whole fluid width/fixed width, lack of RSS feed, etc all are usability issues in themselves. Regardless if the fluid width existed before the fixes width the site should have some unification and with CSS it’s easy enough to fix those issues globally. Having two very different width on similar pages makes it look perhaps unprofessional. And the lack of an RSS feed is truely, truely annoying.

    On a side note regarding “jim” – I agree with the others saying Chris (and you!) are entitled to your own opinions. And you are very much entitled to disagree with Chris. But there really isn’t any cause to be rude about it. Chris pointed out valid issue that the community has been discussing for nearly the past 3 years and personally attacking him for pointing out what many others have thought/discussed isn’t the way to go.

  26. Jeffrey Zeldman writes in Designing with Web Standards:

    Some accessibility sites are downright
    ugly, but the problem lies with those
    sites designers, not with
    accessibility, which carries no visual

  27. LMAO. Chris thanks for being brave and stepping in front of the gauntlet with something just about every web designer who has looked into UX and then goes to the sites of some of the gurus in the field (I’m not being facetious) and is forced to do a double take to make sure they’re in the right place.

    Your article points the various cases of just flat out bad design clearly enough. Not to anything away from Nielsen but everyone (and think the readers of this blog know this) please invest in the value of visual design, it matters. Thanks Chris. Stay strong, your points are valid and your blog is way past awesome.

  28. I know there has long been a discussion between form and function on websites. I think there needs to be some middle ground, although I guess I learn more towards function, I think Jakob Nielsen at the far function extreme.

  29. LOL. Thanks for this nice and funny post Chris. Although i’m a huge fan of his posts about usability for more than a decade, i’d thought about this paradox many times before.. He needs a better design for, thats sure. At least not for me (who is 33 years old) but for the new generation which mostly focused on first image than content, he better to set up 2 versions of this site (current+a nice looking one) with CSS so that he can make his legend keep going on :p

    @ Joshua Richardson: really nice point :)

  30. Great post. I am definitely recommending my readers take a look at your analysis this weekend…

    Jeremy Horn
    The Product Guy

  31. Manoj
    Permalink to comment#

    Sir “Thomas Alvaa Edison” did a legendary job of inventing the electric-bulb, but if he is still alive (or get a re-birth), he must upgrade his drawing-room by at least a tube light. Moreover he shouldn’t suggest us to make our lights always round shaped.

    Great job Sir Edition… please through some light on this. :)

  32. Elite
    Permalink to comment#

    I do remember using this site a few years ago and the flow of it was just horrible! Now it seems to flow a lot better and it works a lot better then in the past.

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