Design - Usability - UX Design

7 Common Usability Mistakes You Must Avoid

Usability mistakes can spoil even the best design, drive users away, and kill conversions. While it’s true you can’t make a site appeal to everybody and what’s usable for one user might be a total disaster for another, there are some basic usability guidelines to stick to and some common usability mistakes that are relatively easy to avoid. Here are seven of them – of course, there are many more than this but these seven are really big ones.

1. No Responsive Design

In an age of diversity of devices, responsive design is a must. Responsive design itself might not be perfect and it doesn’t solve all problems but without it your site becomes a disaster. With so many free and reliable frameworks to make your site responsive, there is simply no excuse to keep it the old way.

Even if you have a blog with long articles nobody will read on a tiny mobile, it won’t hurt to go responsive because users might want to check on their mobile just the headlines and read the rest on their desktop/laptop at home.


Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

2. Important Stuff Deeply Hidden

When you have lots of stuff, don’t presume users will browse every single pixel of your site just to find what they need. Of course, you can’t put everything in a visible place but try to do it at least for the important stuff. Depending on the purposes of the site, the definition of what important stuff is differs – you just need to know what in your case the important stuff is.

For instance, if you sell stuff – make the Buy button, Add to Cart, etc. visible from far away – i.e. make it larger, in a contrasting color, leave a lot of white space around it.

02 - Add to Cart Button

The Add to Cart button is visible from far away

If you want to be contacted, make the Contact form or info visible on absolutely every page – be it in the menu, in the footer, in the top half of the sidebar, you get the idea.

3. Messy Navigation

For a 5-page site messy navigation is not a problem but as a site grows and more and more pages appear, navigation becomes very important. Even if you somehow manage to put all the stuff you deem important in visible places, there is much more content you can’t put there.

One of the keys to good navigation is the so-called 3-click rule – i.e. all your content should be accessible with no more than 3 clicks from the homepage. However, in many cases this isn’t applicable. Let’s say you have an e-commerce site with many categories and subcategories. For example, you have Home, Clothes, Women’s Clothes, Skirts.

In order to access the Skirts category, there are more than 3 clicks from the Home page but this is just fine, this is not messy navigation. You can even have more subcategories than the ones in the example, provided logical arrangement demands it – if you have subcategories in the Skirts category (i.e. arranged according brand), this is OK, users won’t get confused.

For sites with multiple subcategories, breadcrumbs (shown below) are mandatory because they not only show users where they currently are but allow to quickly return to a parent category.

03 - Breadcrumbs

A Breadcrumb (the red arrow is pointing at it)

The links in the breadcrumbs are clickable, so users can click on them and return to a previous subcategory. For example, if you are browsing a skirt but you want to return to Clothes, you don’t have to start from the Home page, or even go to the menu but you can directly click Clothes in the breadcrumb.

There are other tricks you can use to avoid messy navigation but I won’t discuss them here. Just a quick tip – even if you don’t manage to make your navigation perfect, if you provide a sitemap (for humans and for search engines) this helps a lot not to get lost in the labyrinth of menus and submenus.

4. No Search Functionality

No matter how great your navigation is, if the site is huge, don’t expect users to browse it religiously till they find what they need. Instead of browsing, users tend to search. Therefore, if you don’t have search functionality, users get frustrated.
Of course, users can always search with Google for results from your site only but this is very unreliable. First, Google doesn’t necessarily index all pages from your site.

Second, even these that are indexed are rarely indexed real-time, so if users are looking for something new, they won’t be able to find it with Google. Third, there is nothing more frustrating than to have to search with Google within hundreds or thousands of results from a site just to find that this information is not current anymore.

04 - Search

This is why you can’t rely on Google search to provide the search functionality for your site. You need to do it on your own and even better, if you have a large site, provide users with the ability to search within a separate category only rather than the entire site. Such search functionality is much more targeted and helps users to find what they need in much less time.

5. Registration for Nothing

It might be very tempting to make every single visitor to your site register and provide valuable information about themselves, such as an email address and demographic data but this is the fastest way to chase users away. Actually, even simple registration forms – i.e. just an email address – tend to annoy users and they just move on.

Of course, very often you do need registration. For instance, when you provide a free download that is of value to users, any user who wants to download it will be happy to provide an email address in return. However, usability problems start when you have way too much functionality that can be accessed only by registration. Try to minimize these at any cost.

It’s even worse if you want users to sign up for a third-party offer in return to accessing parts of your site, or if you ask for credit card numbers. Credit card numbers are a particular no-no because many users are rightfully concerned about what happens to their data. Therefore, it’s best if you ask for credit card numbers only when a purchase (not a free trial!) is to be made.

05 - Credit Card

Image Credit: nacu

6. Broken Links and/or Wrong Links

Broken links and links that go to the wrong place belong to messy navigation but since they are a way too common usability mistake, let’s review them separately. Broken links are obvious – they lead to a 404 page because the URL of the target has been changed since the time we put the link. Fortunately, there are numerous tools, such as Broken Links Checker for WordPress you can use to check for broken links sitewide or in particular sections. These tools might not capture all sorts of broken links (i.e. dynamic links) and for a large site they can take quite long to complete the check but certainly they are more than nothing.

06 - Broken Links Checker

Unlike broken links, when a user clicks on a wrong link, he or she doesn’t see an error message. Instead, he or she sees a page but the problem is this is not the page you intended to link to. Wrong links stem from misspelled links that lead to an actual page but not the intended one or outbound links that lead to an URL that hasn’t been changed but the information there is different.

Wrong links are harder to catch. As you guess, there are no tools to help you. In order to catch wrong links, you just need to check them manually one by one. I know this is tedious and for a large site the effort is an overkill, so nobody expects you to do it daily but from time to time do not forget to perform such an audit – your users will be happy if you do it.

7. Poor Readability

There are numerous usability sins that lead to poor readability and even if I wanted, I couldn’t possibly list them all here. Some of the worst usability mistakes that lead to poor usability are:

  • Content placed not in these places where studies show users tend to look;
  • Use of illegible fonts and/or illegible color combinations;
  • Long lines of text

There are various heat maps (i.e. maps that show where users tend to look and click) and these differ depending on many factors, such as the type of the site (i.e. corporate site, blog, shopping site, etc.), so in order to make the right text placing decisions, check what’s recommended for your type of site. For instance, here are some heat maps for a single article website, a blog, and a forum provided by Maxi-Pedia:


As for fonts, color combinations, and long lines, you don’t have that much control. If you use some fancy font that’s not very popular, you can never know what it will be substituted with on the users screen. The safest here is to go with fonts that are popular on most platforms, such as Windows, Linux, Mac, Android, etc.

For color combinations, just use high contrasting color schemes. This tool can help you decide if the colors you’ve picked meet readability criteria or not.

Long lines of text can be avoided by using columns. You can’t always fix the width of a column and with responsive design you don’t have much control over how your site will be shown on various devices. However, you can always use columns and text boxes to avoid long lines of text that are difficult to follow.

Perfect usability is impossible to achieve – no matter how hard you try, you simply can’t please everybody. However, if you make blatant usability mistakes, even your hardcore fans will be annoyed. In order to avoid this, think how you can implement on your site at least the suggestions in this article. Of course, if your time and budget permit, you can go much further than this, this will do no harm.

About the author

Ada Ivanova is a fulltime freelancer. She finally managed to find the perfect job that allows her to combine writing, design, (some) coding, and entrepreneurship skills under one umbrella.

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