How Your Website's Crappy Usability Is Costing You Sales

Everyone always THINKS they know what will improve a company’s bottom line: higher search engine rankings, higher levels of website traffic, more social media outreach, more products, more blog posts and on and on.

But what if I told you that just by focusing on how users interact with and “use” your website to achieve their goals – what is often referred to as usability – by making it easier, friendlier and more intuitive, you could increase sales and conversions much faster and with less time and money spent than almost ANY other “traffic” generating initiative?

So what is “website usability” and how can it be used (no pun intended) to spruce up your company’s current website to immediately convert a higher number of visitors into sales?

I’m glad you asked…

What is Website Usability?

Website usability is defined by Jakob Nielsen as:

 “The ease with which users learn to use a web site, how efficient they are when using it, how easy it is for them to remember how to use it and how satisfied they are when they use it “

Now look at the words in bold.

Usability is concerned with users learning, their efficiency, their ability to remember how to use it if they visit the same website again, and their satisfaction when using that website.

If you read between the lines, this perfectly ties in with your website and company objectives.

A usable website that satisfies users and enables them to achieve their objectives in an efficient manner will lead to longer visits, repeat visitors, referrals from satisfied visitors, backlinks, positive reviews and higher goal conversions.

A Practical Example of Usability In the Real World

In a second, I’m going to go into a more detailed explanation with examples of good and bad website usability on various websites.

But I first wanted to show you a quick example of usability in something as simple as a mobile phone application.

The screenshots below show changes implemented on the TripAdvisor mobile application after usability testing.


Not only is the new design cleaner, less cluttered and simpler to understand, but more importantly, the entire experience now revolves around the user – rather than what TripAdvisor WANTED the user to do.

For instance, the company now gives more prominence to tabs that inevitably address the user's top reasons for using the app in the first place: finding hotels, restaurants and fun things to do.

The use of thumbnails now enhances the user’s experience and the selection of a tab – a hotel in this case – now shows the rating and price range, which was missing in the previous version.

Thus, with one simple look, the user can browse and select an accommodation that is to their liking, quickly and easily using a very intuitive interface.

As a result of this redesign, do you think TripAdvisor is seeing an increase in bookings and with it revenue?

Why Website Usability is Vital To Your Company's Bottom Line

On the web, the only point of contact that a company has with a potential prospect or lead is its website.

Thus, your web presence is one of the main ways – and for some companies the ONLY way – you can achieve your online goals and company objectives, be they commercial, information or otherwise.

Most websites are terribly designed, hard to use and were created to satisfy the owner or upper level management and NOT the end user.

Things like links, colors, image placement, white space and conventional usability attributes like a search box in an expected location, all contribute to the overall usability of a website.

Some quick examples you are probably familiar with include:

  • Links: Having links that indicate clickability: (i.e. blue, underlined, change color on hover and after visiting). Links must also be descriptive enough that a user would already know what they would expect to find even before clicking a link. Therefore, links such as "read more", "find now" etc. are not as usable as other more descriptive terms.
  • Search Box: Having a search box on all your website's pages ideally at the top right hand corner and consisting of a text box and a button labelled "search".
  • Fonts: Using a font that is large enough to be read, well spaced, and that contrasts sharply with its background. Additionally, it should be easy to understand what information on the page is content, in addition to different degrees of headings.

Website Usability Research

Research shows that usable websites increase user satisfaction which leads to increased time spent on the website and more leads and sales generated as a result.

Photo of the MailChimp website
MailChimp is one of the cleanest and best examples of great website usability.


Conversely, research conducted by Montero[1]  indicates that websites which violate usability conventions confuse users and result in a loss of revenue for the companies that operate them.

Photo of a webpage that is hard for the user to navigate.
This website is an example of bad usability. It’s cluttered, complicated, and feels like “work” just to try and figure out what to do.


In fact, poor usability was one of the reasons many online companies went bankrupt in the infamous dot-com bust (1995-2000). Here’s an article that talks about this in more detail.

Another interesting fact stemming from research, is that the importance of website usability positively correlates with the competition of the environment it is operating in.

This means that a web site operating in the very competitive e-commerce environment is more likely to lose a potential customer due to poor usability (often to a competing web site) than a web site that operates in a less competitive environment such as Meteorology research.

It’s quite simple really.

All you have to do is put yourself in your customer’s shoes.

When you visit a website, immediate subconscious judgments are made as to the trustworthiness, authority and likelihood of doing business with the company that created it.

A usable website will enable users to achieve their goals, which in turn allows you to achieve yours – and remember, your company’s website is NOT about you, only about your customers and their needs!

By ensuring that your website is streamlined, easy to use and fits within the parameters that I outlined above in Jakob’s definition of usability, you can easily increase leads, conversions and ultimately, sales.

This in turn actively contributes towards the company achieving its own goals.

How To Make Your Website Usable

Now I will warn you ahead of time, website usability is NOT a sexy term…not even close.

In fact, when you present this to the decision-makers within your company or if you are already biased as the CEO or owner of your company, it will often fall short of “instant” gratification techniques like Search Engine Optimization (SEO), Search Engine Marketing (SEM) or Social Media Marketing (SMM) – don’t let your organization fall into that trap!

As with any website optimization or traffic generating field, prioritizing your website usability issues is a must.

If potential clients and customers are leaving your website because they can’t find what they need, are confused or don’t trust your company, you’ve got bigger problems than trying to get MORE visitors to your site!

In fact, wasting time on traffic generating initiatives will prove fruitless if once that traffic arrives, they immediately leave, or worse, post something negative about your company as a result of your poor user experience.

Resources - human, financial and time-based  -- are always scarce and must be invested in a way that yields the highest Return On Investment (ROI).

Therefore, it is important to focus – at the very least – on core usability aspects that yield the highest contribution towards making your website a place people want to engage with, before you worry about bringing in more traffic.

Once those minimum areas are optimized then you can focus on other areas of usability that will yield you even more of an edge against your competition.

In their book "Prioritizing Website Usability", Nielsen and Loranger rank the highest usability problem areas as follows:

Pie chart indicating problem areas of website usability
Source: Nielsen and Loranger (2006)


This essentially means that if you focus your efforts on just 4 areas, you will address 68% of your usability problems.

Yes, you might argue that these statistics are from 2006, but – unlike most areas in the IT world – many usability guidelines, like this one, still hold today!

The reason?

Human beings evolve at a far slower rate than technology.

Remember, usability is all about the user.

Small, crammed fonts on a low contrast background without adequate character and line spacing won’t be legible on the your 1920x1080 HD monitor!

So with that being said, let’s take a look at each of the above areas that will yield you the biggest bang for your buck:

1. Findability: refers to how easily users can locate the content that they are looking for when visiting your site.

Thus, you need to take care of the information architecture -- how your website is structured -- category names, navigation, and links, and improve them so your users can find YOUR products and services quickly and easily!

Picture of the smei website that makes products hard to find
This site makes it almost impossible to find what you are looking for. Most visitors will simply give up, costing the company valuable business.


2. Information: refers to the text, images and other media presented on your website.

For your information to be useful, you need to ensure that your content is understood by your target users.

Users typically want to know about the company behind the website. In the case of e-commerce websites, product information and prices must be clear and visible.

Photo of a website that does not present it's products well.
This website is in clear violation of good website usability with poorly presented information, especially for an e-commerce website!


3. Search: refers to the search functionality within your website.

Users will typically try and use the navigation system on your website.

However, if they cannot locate what they are looking for, they will resort to your search box.

Your visitors use search engines. Therefore, they know what search functionality looks like and how it should behave.

The rule of thumb here is to make your search functionality resemble that of search engines in both user interface as well as functionality.

Search should be located at the top right hand corner, be present on all of your pages and consist of a text field and a button labelled “search”.

The text field should be wide enough to allow long search queries by the user (typically 20 characters or more) as longer search queries tend to yield better search results.

A navigation bar with an almost hidden search box
This website mislabels the search box and pretty much hides it from users! It’s almost as if they don’t want anyone to know what it is or use it.


4. Page Design: refers to the user interface of your website.

An interesting observation is that page design ranks 4th on this list.

This effectively means that contrary to what you may read, a nice user interface with standard-compliant code and the trendiest widgets does not necessarily mean you have a usable website.

Special attention needs to be paid towards the layout of your website, the readability of your content and the graphics you use.

The site needs to look professional in nature as this contributes towards the authority, trust and reputation of your company.

Black background with colorful words written on it.
This screenshot shows an example of good and bad text choices for a black background. Obviously higher contrast (white on black) is better than low contrast for usability.


Bottom Line:

Usability is essential for any company that has a web presence.

If you want users to be happy, contact you, buy products from you, or stick around long enough to form a relationship with your company, then you simply cannot afford to divert all your attention to traffic building initiatives while simultaneously ignoring the importance of website usability in determining your bottom line.

SEO, SEM, social media and other traffic building initiatives bring users to your website, but it is usability that ultimately guides them to where they want to be and keeps them coming back.

[1] Montero, F., Gonzáles, P., Lozano, M. & Vanderdonckt, J., 2005. Quality models for automated evaluation of web sites usability and accessibility. In International COST294 Workshop on User Interface Quality Model. Rome, Italy, 2005