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Archive for April, 2009

Usability in the Amazon

Tuesday, April 21st, 2009

Amazon's Usability is one of the biggest and probably the best known of all online e-commerce shops. It was launched way back in 1995. It sustained the first internet boom and survived its following bust. It played a big hand in promoting the benefits of online shopping and is still most peoples first online shopping experience. I know it was mine (Gleaming the Cube on VHS… what. Its awesome!)

I believe that, not all but the majority of Amazon’s success has been down to its user experience and usability. It was one of the first internet shops to take usability seriously, and to my knowledge, the first to do full usability testing on a website.

Lets see what they did right.

For a closer look check out the slideshow above. Click ‘Full Screen’ for a massive view.

1999 (party like its…)

1999This is the earliest screenshot I have and by this time things have moved along well for Amazon. No longer did they only sell books, now a whole manor of departments are listed. The first thing that stands out is that the logo is not in the standard top left corner. The left navigation is a waterfall of links and text. A little difficult to read I think.

2000 (Lets all meet up in the year…)

2000 Now everything has gone haywire and they have departments coming out of their ears. This is a good example of how top horizontal navigation does not grow well with a website. I suppose its still usable in this form but it looks terrible.

2001 a space odyssey

2001a The top navigation had to be tamed. A victim of their own expansion. Too many departments forced them to only show a few departments with a “see more stores” link. The left navigation has also been brought a little more inline. It doesn’t hurt the eyes anymore.

2001b The colour change could have been a seasonal change but the more important usability change is that the left navigation is no longer in alphabetical order. When you have a lot of departments alphabetising the navigation is often a good way to help the user. On the other hand, if 80% of your visitors use only a handful of departments you are helping them enormously by ordering departments by popularity.

2002 (No song or film has 2002 in the title)

2002 Why change a winning formula? More of the same apart from a slight tweak to the left navigation. It is now far more usable with just a touch of organisation and section heading. Users don’t read anything online (in most cases). If you can make content easy to skim users will love you for it.


2006a A drastic redesign is required now that Amazon has 32 stores to fit in. Why the logo was put inside a tab, I will never know. Don’t mess with the convention of a logo as the home link situated at the top of the page.

With the department overload, a new ‘favourite department’ functionality has been shoehorned in. This will do nothing for usability and I would be surprised if any user would take the time to customise the navigation of an online shop. Would you?

2006b Hurray the search is back. I have no idea why they would remove such an important usability and navigation aid from the framework of the website. Its not a win win situation because they also added an Amazon A9 search box. This searches the web but looks just like a regular internal site search. Even with the title ‘web search’ I still paused and had to think. (We all know that’s bad idea don’t we Steve Krug).


2007a The year of the product. No massive changes to usability but a style change to the way products are displayed. Less text gives it a cleaner look whilst the carrousel product spinner gets a lot more items on the page but doesn’t clutter (much). Amazon now has a list of 43 product categories to view. Just imagine if they had continued with their original tab layout.

2007b Not long after their previous radical change, along came another monumental realignment. The issues with hiding departments behind a “See all 43 Product Categories” tab must be apparent now. The traditional top navigation has been replaced by something that is very similar to the current version of the website. And finally… the logo is back in the most usable and conventional position.


2009 The current day Amazon. The top navigation is slowly creeping back but now its only used for account related information. A very successful usability technique is to keep similar functioning pages in the same area. This is a good example. The left navigation has now been compacted to its main headings. New web technologies and the widespread adoption of rollover drop down menus have made it possible for this approach. This left navigation is no longer a daunting expanse of links. Its now a little cleaner and more usable.

What’s next?

Looking at the massive differences from the 1999 screenshots to 2009 version, you can see that things change a lot. I wonder if amazon ever thought they would sell so many products in as many departments? Nobody can predict what their e-commerse shop will turn into and how many products will be sold. All you can be sure of is that every addition you make could require some change in usability. Usability is not something that’s undertaken once and its done. It needs to change and adapt with your shop. A usability evolution over time.

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