The Usability Problems of

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Chris Coyier on (Updated on )

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 1024×768 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