Anybody have good examples of usability disasters?

Here's an example. Hector is a manager with a large team. Department admin wants to send Hector a spreadsheet with his team's salaries. She types "Hector" in the Outlook "To:" field. It autocompletes to "Hector's Team" but she doesn't notice that until after she sends it.

+2  A: 

I suppose it's not a disaster as such, but my personal peeve is the sort of error dialog box you'll find in most OSes...e.g. "Unable to write to disk, data may have been lost"...and then a single button saying "OK". No it's not OK!!!

Perhaps the single button should have been labeled "Oh no!"
Adam Bellaire
+14  A: 

The worst horror story I know is the Therac radiation therapy device that killed patients. The case study is available as well.

Some articles have mentioned the complexity of the user interface as a contributing factor.

Oh, medical disasters: there was the London Ambulance Service debacle where several dispatch calls arriving quickly would scroll off the bottom of the window. And there was no scroll bar...
Alabaster Codify
It was not usability; it was a race condition.
Right, I had the same reaction as maurycy--at the lowest technical level this was a race condition, and then the problem was compounded by management and even governmental ineptitude if I remember the story correctly. [more]
Willie Wheeler is true that the problem only manifested itself when experienced users used the system, but it wasn't a novice vs. expert usability issue. The system supported expert use just fine, other than killing people when experts used the system.
Willie Wheeler
+28  A: 
Alabaster Codify
let's keep comments apolitical please, this is not slashdot
Steven A. Lowe
My vote for the "terrible website" prize has got to be: (via reddit)
Alabaster Codify

My favorite common usability pet peeve is the Grayed Out Menu Option.

Why the hell is it grayed out? Ridiculous.

There are 3 choices for an action that can't be completed in the current context: remove it, gray it out, or pop up an error when selected. Removing it changes the menu and makes it harder to memorize the layout. An error disturbs the flow. Graying out is the least obnoxious.
Mark Ransom
This might be worthy of its own question - "What are the alternatives to graying out a menu item?"
Mark Ransom
The fourth alternative - gray it out and provide a tooltip explaining why.
I like that fourth alternative. And who says the menu system is the only navigation a GUI is allowed to have?
+4  A: 

If you're looking for usability disasters, just google for "shareware" or "freeware", or anything on Sad but true, 99.9% of it looks like is was designed by a blind man with both hands tied behind his back.

Jon Grant
+6  A: 

The plain old 'hit return to accept default' in a dialog box must be one of the most common source of disasters (though the default is supposed to be safe, it isn't always).

The Risks Digest is also a good source of usability mistakes as well as more general risks.

+5  A: 
  • When websites only work with certain browsers but not Internet Explorer, just out of principle.

  • I've seen some business applications requiring Flash for displaying a simple table, though that's not really a usability problem I guess.

  • The Apple Boot camp wizard that has no working cancel buttons in any of the steps, you're stuck with either repartitioning your drive or killing the application.

  • Lotus Notes in general.

  • Windows Vista shutdown button - you never know what it's set to do (sleep, hibernate, shut down or do the macarena) so you'll use the tiny drop-out menu instead anyway.

  • The Outlook inline auto-complete mentioned in the question that's not linked to the address book or GAL and will be lost if the user profile is reset. Users tend to automatically depend on that cache without realizing it's highly volatile.

Oskar Duveborn
+1 for the Vista Shutdown button.. I always want it to do the macarena
yet another +1 for the Vista Shutdown button.
I'm happy that they've resolved this issue in an "ok" way in Windows 7 ^^
Oskar Duveborn
+12  A: 

Microsoft has a few to name

  • The horrible mess that is MSN hotmail. This interface is so convulted and unintuitive. It seems that the developers thought that as long as the user can select a color scheme out of 8 ugly ones they're ok.
  • Windows vista plastic box - Being original doesn't excuse doing a lousy job at it.
  • No "Up folder" button in the vista windows explorer. Did anyone say "removing features"?
  • Inconsistencies across office applications. (for instance) Why can't I move equation I created in word to power point and still be able to edit it?
  • the office circular button. Good people who are actually programmers have mistaken this for just an ornamental element.
Hahahaha re: the plastic box. Yeah, I bought Office and it came in the same kind of box. I had no idea how to open the thing. I ended up pulling the plastic pin out. After I took the whole thing apart then it was clear how it was supposed to work. Ha ha...
Willie Wheeler
I'm guilty of missing the circular button. +1
Mark Ransom
I watched my partner hunt for the Print icon in Office 2007 for about two minutes until I pointed out the circular button. He said something to the effect of "Why the heck wouldn't they put the most important stuff on a tab?" Also, I was stymied by the plastic box as well.
Nicholas Piasecki
+11  A: 

Isn't Lotus Notes one usability disaster from end to end? At least as an email program (which was add-on functionality for what might otherwise be a semi-decent group work system - think old-style Wiki with workflow).

Jonathan Leffler
Pretty good laughs at (warning: pop-ups and such).
Nicholas Piasecki
+2  A: 

Form's reset. :-)


sites that insist on javascript, oh wait..

worst app I've come across recently has to be scribus, which is a shame because I need to do what it does.

mr calendar
Any particular reason's why?
+4  A: 

There is a huge list of usability disasters in Nielsen's Prioritizing Web Usability, including some that have already been mentioned.

+4  A: 

The "Interface Hall of Shame" is worth mentioning in this context... It's a bit old, but certainly interesting!

+4  A: 

A few examples (not all computer related) :

  • In December 1989 in Montreal, a crazy shooter started shooting people at l’École Polytechnique de Montréal (Engineering School). It was later shown that the police intervention was delayed because 911 needed the exact adress of the building (couldn't find it by his name). 14 students were killed that day.

  • Air France's Airbus A320 crashed on January 20th, 1992. The same button was used for 2 differents functions (speed and angle of descent). 87 people died.

Example with less consequences :

  • Dragging a disk to the trash to eject it on a Macintosh
I totally agree with Mac one.
Burak Erdem

Joel had this one I think a while ago - but many people have pondered it... The red off button to turn ON the cell phone.

Yeah, that's a good one... :-)
Willie Wheeler
+1  A: 

As long as we're not restricting ourselves to computer UI, how about the usability flaw that killed John Denver?

Mark Ransom
More likely he just didn't get the training he needed. Many airplane cockpits are not user-friendly. His own fault.
I own a plane. I read the John Denver reports. It was tragic, to be sure, but the bottom line is that it is pilot error. He is supposed to be familiar with the aircraft and he should not have been so low that a slight deviation from turning/descending should kill him.
Just because an unfortunate usability characteristic shouldn't have killed him, doesn't mean it didn't. I find the description in the link to be pretty damning. If you don't, please give me your definition of "usability flaw".
Mark Ransom
Wow, that's really tragic. There are several aviation-related usability errors out there, including the one that caused the midair collision between a private jet and an airliner in Brazil.
Robert S.
+1  A: 

Donald Norman's book The Design of Everyday Things - is one of the classics in this field. Many, many excellent examples of bad usability design can be found in this book.

Should be required reading in all HCI and Usability courses.



(amazon link: )

+1  A: 

Hi Willie,

Not nearly as disastrous as some of these examples... I have a blog focused on the analysis and constructive criticism of web and desktop application usability.


Rob S.
Nice, I'll check it out...thanks!
Willie Wheeler
+2  A: 

The new "Ribbon" UI in MS Office 2007.

Rob Kam

JCL on the mainframe is a usability disaster. Although it was good for it's time when programmers were cheep and computing time was expensive times have changed and JCL hasn't kept up do to backward compatibility.


Not a disaster, but it could have been. The Apollo 10 lunar lander span out of control because both astronauts had flicked a guidance switch that only one of them should have. In the words of astronaut John Young in the excellent documentary In the Shadow of the Moon:

"Computer systems should be user-friendly. When you make a mistake it shouldn't kill you."

Dan Dyer
+2  A: 

Any button that requires the user to hold it for more than 1 second for it to take action.

My boss and I were convinced that the timer on both his oven and his microwave could not be canceled once started; pressing Cancel had no effect.

I discovered by accident one day that you have to press and hold cancel for 3 seconds.

Nicholas Piasecki
Interestingly, the iPhone and Android platforms have the concept of a long-press gesture. However, the cryptic use of it on my oven is, to put it lightly, aggravating.

Cars need not only two hands but also a foot to operate.

I'm sure that in the past 100 years of innovation, we could've come up with something better than that.

how about a joystick? :)
+2  A: 

Joel already posted it on his blog a while back, but worth mentioning shutdown vs. sleep vs. hibernate vs. suspend in windows

From someone who worked on it:

Kevin Davis
+3  A: 

Dropping of a file onto taskbar item in Windows (when you want to open file in application that is currently minimized).

Microsoft anticipated that users may want to do this and... added error message explaining that it won't work.


my example is stackoverflow search features which doesn't display the number of results at the top of the page : you have to scroll down to see the number of pages before knowing if you need to refine your search or not

alfred barthand

Nokia E61 (and many other models I guess, but this is what I have).

There are MANY places and context when there's an obvious action to be taken, and instead of offering the option, a message pops up telling you where you should go to do it (some times that involves going 3 levels down in the menu hierarchy).

I can remember two right now:

  • A connection link wasn't properly closed, when you try to browse the web a message says (approx.): "there is an open connection, go to connectivity, connections management, active data connections and choose disconnect".
  • When choosing a wireless network, you choose for the first time a password protected one, instead of prompting for the password it says something like: "go to connectivity, connections management, available WLAN, and create a new access point".

That completely sucks. If the GUI designers had that options in mind, why they didn't just offered the option of doing the reasonable task in place instead of prompting those stupid messages?

There's still another one... one would think that the appropriate place for the file browser is the "tools" menu, but nope, it's under "office".

+1  A: 

I think the automobile "Unintended Acceleration" issues of the 1980's was a usability disaster. Without a overly obvious separation between gas and brake pedal, and a safety interlock preventing switching from Park unless brake is applied, it was way to easy to misapply the accelerator and run into someone or something. The Audi-5000 took most of the blame for this, but it really applies to all vehicles. The car companies, their lawyers, and many pro-business wonks were unsympathetic and blamed the drivers. But just like the John Denver example posted earlier, an error-prone interface that does not take into account human nature and ends up killing people, is a usability disaster. A minor re-engineering of the interface solved the problem. Today, all cars have a shift safety interlock, and the brake pedal is shaped differently and sits much higher than the accelerator.


Hi there!

I recently wrote an article on this very topic: 9 UX and Usability pitfalls, and how to avoid them. You can check it out at

It has quite a collection of different sites which are lack usability and a good user experience in one way or another with sites ranging from IRS to Dell, and everything in between. Some of the main problems that I mention are difficulties finding content, poor layout, confusing menus and poor menu layout and design.

I hope this will help you have a good idea of some broken sites and what to avoid. I'm writing a new article on sites that do most things right now as well, and I'll be sure to link to that at the time so you have some good ideas of sites that actually work and do what they should.