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The big cost of small usability problems

by Mike B. Fisher on September 16, 2009

Quick summary: User experience problems tend to be cumulative. Enough small problems can have the same effect as a few large ones – namely, causing users frustration and sometimes causing them to give up on your application or website. Crafting a good user experience requires finding and eliminating major usability issues, but less severe problems deserve attention too.

It’s usually the case that for each “big” usability problem with an application or website there are many smaller and less severe issues. Naturally the big problems get the most attention (“What do you mean customers can’t figure out how to enter their credit card number?”). What’s sometimes overlooked is that smaller problems, taken as a whole, can be similarly harmful to user experience.

It’s easy to dismiss the importance of small usability problems. After all, the fact that it takes a customer a few extra tries to complete a form, or a few moments longer than needed to locate a button doesn’t seem like much of an issue.

Yet these and similar small usability problems matter more than many companies realize.

The lay of the land

To understand why, let’s consider a couple of points about the environment in which your website or software is used.

1. The bar to switching is lower online.

Online it’s much easier for customers to give up and go elsewhere than it is “in the real world”.

  • If you should find yourself in Shamrock, Texas (population 2,000) in need of some devonshire cream, there’s probably just the one grocery store to visit. If it’s not there you’re out of luck. (It’s not there, I looked).
  • On the other hand if you’re shopping online and having trouble buying a pair of headphones from the Circuit City website, there are plenty of other companies (Amazon, Best Buy, NewEgg and countless others) who will be glad to help you. And they’re just a mouse click away.

2. Some dimensions of customer service can’t be provided online.

  • A customer at a bricks-and-mortar store with a complaint or problem can usually find a human being with whom they can communicate. The retail experience is designed to provide personal, face to face attention for customers who desire or need it.
  • Online, however, your customers have no face-to-face interaction with you. In essence your application or website – and by extension its user experienceis the company representative.

User experience problems online and customer experience problems offline are both cumulative, but online you’re at a disadvantage when you need to address them.

The offline user experience: your hotel stay

Allow me to illustrate the point about how offline customer experience is cumulative. Let’s go on a quick virtual vacation (sorry, real vacations are expensive).

Now that you’re on vacation imagine you’ve just checked into your hotel. You’ve never been to this hotel before so everything here is a new experience.

You notice a few things while you’re settling into your room:

  • There’s dust on the fixtures.
  • There are a few stains on the carpet.
  • The bathroom faucett is dripping.
  • There aren’t enough towels in the bathroom.
  • Your room is located next to a noisy ice machine.

None of these problems are enough to send you screaming from the hotel, but on the whole you find them annoying. They detract from your vacation experience. So you call the front desk to discuss the problems.

You call. And wait. And wait some more.

When you finally reach someone at the front desk they’re not apologetic about the wait or the condition of your room. They tell you that the maid has left for the day. They don’t offer to put you in another room.

You return home from vacation a few days later, feeling dissatisfied with the hotel and vowing to find a better place to stay next time.

The online user experience: your website or software

The way customers react to software and websites is similar.

A single small problem (navigation that’s hard to find, a display that’s difficult to read, instructions that aren’t clear) might not send a customer running from the room but it certainly detracts from the  experience. A confluence of small usability problems can result in abandonment (“death from 1,000 cuts”). And this is to say nothing of the larger usability issues that can stop your customer in their tracks (see my related article, “5 Shopping Cart Showstoppers“).

As with our fictional hotel stay, if you come away from a task having had a bad experience you’ll tend to avoid repeating it. A bad experience anywhere – in a hotel or on a website – is likely to leave a long lasting negative impression. In fact studies have shown that users who’ve had a bad experience with a product or service are very likely to tell friends and colleagues of their dissatisfaction.

The cost of small usability problems

So what do these small problems cost you and your company?

Customers who struggle with your software or website might be able to complete their transaction or task.  However, they’re much more likely to:

  • Call for (expensive) customer service that could have been avoided.
  • Give up before they complete a purchase or conversion and go straight to a competitor.
  • Make a purchase or conversion but never come back because they were unhappy with the experience.

You can’t be there in person when a customer visits your website*. So ensuring that customers can find and do what they want – without great difficulty – means addressing both large and small usability problems.

The bottom line: prioritizing bigger usability problems is sensible, but don’t forget to “sweat the details” too.

* For now I’m overlooking the role of customer service chat sessions and other forms of semi-live customer support. That’s a topic for another article.

Photo by zzzack. Creative Commons licensed.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Bryan Gudmundson September 16, 2009 at 10:41 am

Great article! I apologize for the sales pitch, but the concerns expressed are exactly those addressed by our SmartAgent® chat technology… so I can’t resist but to say:

1. Flighty customers- we offer chat that launches on exit to find out why they were leaving and offer an incentive (such as free shipping) to bring them back.

2. Online user experience. By reviewing your customer chat transcripts, you can easily see what parts of the site customers don’t like or aren’t understanding.

3. Our SmartAgent® will answer customers’ questions before they call into a call center, engage abandoning customers, and offer incentives and add value to increase client retention.

Large businesses should check out our 100% CPA model at

Small Businesses should take a look at our subscription program at


Christie September 18, 2009 at 6:14 pm

I always try to remember that the UI *is* the product to many, many users. (My mom still thinks the monitor and computer are the same thing.) Important to put your best face forward.

Mike B. Fisher September 23, 2009 at 7:36 pm

No problem Bryan. Sales pitches are allowed so long as they’re on topic (and yours obviously is).

Natalie Sztern September 17, 2012 at 12:01 pm

I am setting up an e-commerce website. With no idea how to I am trying to get Templates online. However, I have pictures that need to be taken and I do need the ability to have some videography on the site. In addition I need the pictures to have an enlargement feature.

If I live in a different city – how can I do this with an online template?

Should I want to find a website designer who can do the above in my city what am I looking for in name?

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