9 Well Designed, Usable Sites, And What Makes Them Great

We recently did a showcase of 9 common usability pitfalls, and how to avoid them, and in the comments there were a lot of questions about the websites we think stand out, and do a great job of both usability and design.

Today you can see a list of nine great examples of very usable, well designed websites from a wide range of industries/areas to give you an idea of what makes great, usable design. The more we like a site, the more we use it, and the better result we get for all concerned. Read on to see nine usable sites, and what makes them great.

1) Gmail.com

What is does: Gmail is a web based email service from Google, and it aims to be your primary inbox with a big feature set to boot.

Why it’s good: Many of us use it on a daily basis, but how often do you stop and think about how it works, and if it functions well? Not often?

This goes to show how good a job the Google folks are doing with Gmail. Email is a crucial service, and many of use couldn’t live without it. Gmail is constantly improving and adding new features, while keep a consistent UI that is really easy to understand.

The additions they include always make it easier to use, such as drag and drop attachments, or viewing most Microsoft Office documents inside of Gmail, and they don’t interfere with the user experience at all, and in fact make the whole service much more usable. What it does, it does extremely well, and makes the experience more enjoyable.

Think of all the people you know who aren’t the most computer literate, and then think of sites they use without needing to ask you for help. Gmail is right up there in my experience, and that’s why I think it’s a great, usable site.

2) RetailMeNot.com

What it does: RetailMeNot is a really cool website for sharing coupon codes for a whole range of different sites (from the same people as BugMeNot fame) so you can get discounts online no matter where you are buying from.

Why it’s good: As well as having a huge collection of coupon codes, they have also introduced lots of little useful features to make the site that much more usable, and provide a more enjoyable, easier experience.

People can rate the different codes to show which ones are or aren’t working, so you know which ones to try. People can submit their own codes, so it’s always got new codes on the site. If you want to copy the code, you can click to copy, or if you want to be taken directly to the site, it will try to store the code in a cookie (although this doesn’t work for all sites). It just makes the whole process so easy, and saves you money too – all while looking pretty good. What more can you ask for?

3) Audible.com

What it does: Audible is quite possibly the biggest repository of audiobooks in existence, and are the exclusive provider of audiobooks to Apple/iTunes. If they don’t have it the chances are it doesn’t exist.

Why it’s good: As well as having a fantastic collection of books, they have also worked very hard over the years to add new, useful features to the site, and create a better user experience for their users.

There are many examples of this: the bookmarking system of audible means that you can listen on your iPhone, shift over to your computer and pick up where you left off. They have over the air downloads, a good range of quality choices for users and support for more than 500 different devices. The search system on their site works really well, and the whole procedure from first searching for a book, until you’ve finished reading is really a seemless process, and something for other content providers to aspire to.

4) KiwiBank.co.nz

What it does: kiwibank is a New Zealand owned and run bank which offers all kinds of typical bank services – online banking, text and mobile banking, branch services, travel cards and the like. It’s pretty much a typical bank.

Why it’s good: There are a whole range of different banks out there, and the all offer very similar services, with similar rates. What sets kiwibank apart is the ease of use of the whole site (check out the online banking demo).

Content is very easy to find, navigation is well thought out, and although there is a huge amount of information available on the site, it’s so well organised that you never feel like the information is overwhelming you. This is a great example for how to manage content and navigation.

Add in all the methods they give you for banking (text banking, iPhone app, travel cards and more) and you have a winning site that other banks could learn from.

5) WebDevRefinery.com

What it does: Webdev Refinery is a forum for web developers, designers and other interested parties to get together, share ideas, get feedback, learn and improve and converse on design and development.

Why it’s good: Of course the community is a key part of any forum, and webdevrefinery seems to be doing well in that respect, but they’ve also gone the extra mile from a typical forum to make the whole system that much more functional, usable and enjoyable.

They make it really easy to monitor different posts, give different subscription levels for each topic, have a very simple direct messaging system, a really simple, easy to use input editor for creating and replying to topics/posts, and a nice head-up display for managing the whole affair. In a time where it looks like most forums were designed in the late ’90s, they have made a nice looking, easy to use forum with a nice community around it too.

6) YouTube.com

What it does: YouTube is the biggest video sharing site in the world, and is the number 3 ranked site overall (according to alexa at least). YouTube is to video as Google is to search.

Why it’s good: I would be the first to say, YouTube doesn’t have the most attractive design out there (I think Vimeo would have to take the cake on that front), but it is so functional, and the design works so well for what it does that it isn’t an issue.

More or less everyone I know can and does use YouTube on a regular basis. My own mother, without any help or advice, has hunted down a huge range of kids TV shows for my nephew to watch, played them full screen, high quality, and bookmarked them for future viewing. This goes to show just how usable and functional it is.

Add in a highly functional search system (hey, it’s Google after all), easy ratings and sharing systems, and ability to embed where ever you want to, and you have a winner.

7) TradeMe.co.nz

What it does: Trademe is the eBay of New Zealand, and one of the most popular sites in the country. It has a huge range of products up for auction, and has a very strong community around it as well, and hence is very successful

Why it’s good: Trademe has a very clear structure, and the way auctions are laid out is clear, consistent and easy to understand. The navigation structure is very easy to follow, and everything is neatly categorized making it that much easier to find. It’s easy to keep track of auctions that you are interested with a well organised watch list, and the design of each page stays consistent throughout the site.

Prices are all clearly laid out, so when you are buying something you’ll know exactly what you are paying, and you won’t have to swap across pages to see all of the most pertinent information about an auction such as delivery costs, sellers location, feedback rating, payment methods and more. It’s what eBay should be.

8) Dropbox.com

What it does: Dropbox is a backup system that allows you to sync your files online, and across many different computers automatically. You can also share files through public links, access files online, on your computer(s) and apps on several different platforms (iOS, Android etc.) – there are really a number of great features.

Why it’s good: Dropbox is a fantastic site for a number of different reasons, but the reason it really stands out is that it just works. Whether you are transferring files in the same room or from country to country, whether you are using mobile devices, Macs, PCs, whatever your usage scenario, it just works.

The fact in, it slips into your workflow so smoothly, you don’t even notice it’s there, and there are so many wonderful features that you don’t really think about until you need them, but they are always there. It’s like they read my mind, and put in all the great features before I needed them, and made it fantastically easy to use too.

Oh, and did I mention it looks great too?

9) GetHarvest.com

What it does: Harvest is a simple time tracking app with a bunch more features thrown in, such as invoicing, expense tracking, budget tracking and more. Pretty useful for freelancers and design companies.

Why it’s good: This is another of those ‘it just works’ kind of sites. It’s really powerful for when you need that power, but it’s really simple for when you just want to get things done. There are more features hidden inside it than you could shake a stick at, and a pretty interface for when you are working with it.

The key thing is that it takes up very little of your precious time, while keeping you on top of your time management, billing, budgeting, expenses and more – which makes life much easier for both you and your clients. Throw in widgets and mobile apps, and you have a winner.


This list isn’t a definitive list of the most usable or well designed sites out there, but just gives you a small number from a wide range of industries/areas to help inspire you, and to make you realise there really are a number of different ways to approach a project, and a number of different ways to make your site and design more usable.

If you give careful consideration to things such as navigation and menus, feature set, content layout, and come up with a consistent strategy and design for your websites, you will end up with a better site, no doubt about it. Usability testing (try IntuitionHQ.com) can help prove that the site and design are usable.

The more you think about it, the better it will be. The better it is, the more people will use and enjoy it, and I guess that’s the end game for all of us.

What do you think of this list? Are there any sites you really love or hate? Be sure to let us know in the comments!

Jacob Creech

Jacob is a usability geek at IntuitionHQ.com - a new, quick, easy to use usability service from Boost New Media. When he's not indulging his passion for the internet, he is probably bloging about China and Chinese learning (having spent three years there) at Sinomatter.com. You can find him on twitter talking about usability @intuitionhq.

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  1. ron says

    I also agree that gmail though is not bad in terms of usability does not deserve to be in this list. one of the worst usable features it has is the way it groups the emails with same subject line together. I’m never sure when replying or forwarding who I’ve included and which parts of threads are included. it really gets frustrating at times.

  2. says

    Nice article i completely agree with gmail

    Many of us use it on a daily basis, but how often do you stop and think about how it works, and if it functions well? Not often?

    Its uaer interface is so simple to understand

  3. Isha says

    A great list – now I have to go bookmark this page. It sure will be of great help to me and my bro. Now I just need to hear what you think of Google+

  4. Carren says

    Some of them are really well designed and very inspirational. I vote for the “RetailMeNot”.
    Thanks for sharing.

  5. says

    Another fantastic post. I notice that most of the sites you mentioned their (Kiwibank for example) have got quite large & noticeable navigation bars. This clearly makes the sites easier to move around.

    Also I have had some problems with Gmails design; when I first started to use the service I actually had to look for about a minute to find the ‘compose mail’ button :)

  6. says

    Kiwibank were very brave to develop such a creative site, coming from a usually conservative sector. For a bank, their approach to the look and feel and the usability was really innovative. Also the drop box was a good choice, featuring a simple, no frills demo.
    Good post!

  7. says

    Nice post! Thank You. Considering each of the sites respective audiences, Kiwi Bank gets my vote for offering both the refreshing choices and crystal clear navigation AND the greatest focus on the x.x% p.a rates. I wonder what their bounce rate is?

    • Jacob Creech says

      Thanks for your comment – I really think Kiwibank is a very strong site, and certainly quite distinct from many other banking sites I have seen.

      I imagine their bounce rate is very low because most people will be going past the front page, and the clear navigation will certainly help with that. I’d be curious to run a usability test on it to see just how long it took people to achieve a certain task on the site, or to find certain content.

  8. MrBaxta says

    Great list, creating a simple UI is an art and a science!

    My only disagreement is Gmail. Sure, I’ll use it over Hotmail…but it would be on my list of “designs we put of with…for now”.

    • Jacob Creech says

      Thanks for your comment, glad you liked the article.

      I’m curious to know what areas of Gmail you have issues with? As I said, I really find it very functional myself, but I’m always curious to hear what other people have to say.

  9. says

    Jacob, you asked for a site I hate with poor usability?

    A: Facebook.com

    I like to think I’m fairly intelligent but Facebook navigation baffles me.

    • Jacob Creech says

      Sheldon, you aren’t the only one I know who isn’t a facebook fan – my main issue is with their privacy controls, and how they seem to bury a lot of useful controls several layers deep.

      Then again, with more than 500 million users, I suppose they must be doing something right.

  10. says

    You lost me at GMAIL? GMAIL as good design, seriously?

    =) Maybe if you are a programmer.

    Now dropbox on the other hand, yes!…”it just works” is what we all should strive for in building products.

    • Jacob Creech says

      Haha, the thing about gmail is that it’s extremely functional, and the design doesn’t get in the way of what it is trying to do.

      Many non technical people I know use the site on a day to day basis, and can figure out everything they need without my help. I personally manage about 20gigs of mail across two accounts, and have absolutely no issues with it.

      What do you dislike about it? What would you do differently in terms of usability?

  11. Marco Barbosa says

    Nice ones Jacob.

    Google and Apple are always ahead when it comes to usability.

    Thanks for sharing.