Epic UX Fails (and the Lessons We Can Learn)

By Simon Cocking & the Digital Skills Academy Team

We love design, UX, and everything that enables technology to help make our life easier. We want to inspire and encourage future designers to continue to improve the user experience across all the devices and applications that we use. We hope these examples will inspire and help others through describing these ‘challenging’ moments when you think I wish it would just do x instead of y

When Windows 8 Removed the Start Button

As a company, Apple is often considered to be an innovative, design-led company but in many ways they’re quite conservative – particularly when it comes to their OS. A user of OS X from ten years ago would likely still find their way around their latest version. Changes tend to small and incremental.

Windows 7 Start Button disappeared

On the other hand, more recently Microsoft have been making changes to their core UX – often at the expense of the user. Anyone using a Windows PC has, from the beginning, used the desktop and Start menu as the hub from which to navigate tasks and the file system.

With Windows 8, Microsoft designed an OS that would be both click and touch friendly; but the experience was generally unsatisfactory in both contexts. By removing the Start menu and the default Desktop screen, they pulled the rug from under users who, over years of use, were ingrained in opening applications and files in a particular way.

This all had to be relearned and caused enormous frustration for even the most loyal Windows fan. Thankfully the Start button was re-introduced in 8.1 but not before many had downgraded to Windows 7.

It’s a good example of the perils of developing a novel new design at the expense of users and possibly ignoring user testing.

ATMs: Do they really need to return the card just because they don’t have the amount I asked for?

ATM card

If you can’t give the amount requested it’s ok. Just ask me for a new amount. You don’t need to send me back to the start or cancel the transaction and give me my card back.

For such a widely-used, mature UI, ATMs have an incredibly inconsistent user experience, switching between keypads, side mounted screen buttons and touch-screen controls often within the same interaction. It’s hard to know precisely why. Is it that corporate competition is beating out standards and UI consistency? Or are financial institutions just slow-moving on UX?

You Know My Name – Why Not Use It?

'Hello my name is' sticker with 'Subscriber' written on it.

Photo credit: quinn.anya via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Companies that reply with ‘Dear Subscriber‘. I recently had a problem with a Wired magazine subscription. I was involved in some email tennis with a nice enough guy who managed to get things sorted for me. But every email came back as ‘Dear Subscriber’ on the back of my last email.

As soon as I get my confirmed account details I’m cancelling my subscription.

Mobile Popup Ads That Fill the Screen (With No Easy to Find ‘X’)

Companies that don’t realise they are talking to mobile consumers and insist on having pop up adverts that take up the full screen on a phone and you can’t find the minimise ‘x’. I’m not sure if it’s a technical failing or a business decision, but it’s a great way to make users feel both helpless and stupid.

Pie in the face

USB: Remind Me Which Way is the Right Way Up (Again)?

Power outlets: How often do we get them wrong?

How many times have you tried to insert a USB key upside down? I do it about 50% of the time.

On the surface, this seems like a tiny quibble until you consider how many tens of millions of USB devices get used every day. Tally up the collective seconds wasted with each ‘plug fail’ and it becomes a more serious consideration.

Of course, there are well-established solutions to this type of problem. For more than a hundred years power outlets have an obvious socket orientation that makes it difficult to get wrong. Even better: design a plug that doesn’t matter which way it’s plugged (i.e. lightning cables).

Forgetful Forms

Pencil eraser

Accidentally hitting the back button or otherwise navigating away from a long web form before submitting it, and have to enter everything again. This can easily be avoided with localStorage in JavaScript.

This one is a killer and has driven us all mad at some point!

Browser Password Overrides

Usually, password management is a good thing, until you run into a web form that asks for only one field – and your browser tries to save it as a password without a username. Be sure that your idea of ‘help’ isn’t actually hurting your users.

Project Scope Creep and Improper Requirements

A large insurance website not long ago spent 20 months developing a new website based around the priciples of ‘mobile first’, spending in excess of €180k (over $200k). When the site was finally launched, the dimensions for desktop/laptop were constrained by mobile/tablet dimensions so desktop screens were not utilised effectively.

Even worse, the first release of the site was not even mobile ready! Less than 12 months later, a brand new website was rolled out.

Technology Faux Pas

A major international hotel chain website was designed and developed using the latest HTML5 technologies rolled out in early days of HTML5. It looked wonderful on the glossy hotel screens, but when viewed in smaller mobile devices, the menus, and panels stacked on top of each other obscuring the content and functionality.

Worse, in older browsers, a window appeared inside the site frame instructing the user to install the Google Chrome Frame extension to view the site.

Foot in Mouth Layout Issues

When Google rolled out their “Page Layout” update to their algorithms back in 2012, a tech news site reported on it. The actual content of their news article was two pages down on the keyboard, below the ads and large images … and they actually still practice this … the report specifies that this practice will start being penalised by the algorithm.

Why Does Facebook Want Access To My Microphone and Camera?


I still don’t know why Facebook wanted access to the microphone and camera on my machine so that I could add a French flag overlay in response to the Paris attacks. I had to really look to find out how to turn them off once I had added the flag to my cover image.

The “Not-so-digital Home”

I know of a company who had invested a lot of money in the ‘digital home’. One of the managers of the programme agreed to have his home ‘upgraded’ to digital. One evening he got home to a house in complete darkness. After trying unsuccessfully to remedy the problem via the UI, he resorted to calling in one of the techies. After spending another hour troubleshooting, the techie was still no closer to finding the issue.

Eventually, he discovered that the light bulb had blown. The project was mothballed the next morning.

Be careful you’re not inventing more problems than you are solving.


The great thing about all of those things that can potentially drive us mad is that they are all ultimately changeable. UX designers are people too, and will generally realise pretty quickly if they have designed something that drives themselves mad, let alone the rest of the world.

Remember the days when you couldn’t copy text from a PDF document? Thankfully we are now in an age where bumps in the road can usually be identified and fixed fairly quickly. We hope this article inspires everyone, ourselves included, to keep honing better and better user experiences for all of us.

  • M S i N Lund

    So the “Not-so-digital Home”-guy really only had that one single light-bulb in his entire home?

    Maybe they should have chosen an employee who didn’t live in a van down by the river.

    • I have no idea, but I’m guessing the system relied on some kind feedback from the broken globe, and errored when it got nothing – taking the ability to control other lights with it. I’m not sure how silly you’d have to be to build something like that though.

      • Electrical circuits usually rely on the open and closed states. Apparently this guy didn’t factor that in when he built a system that couldn’t tell when a single circuit was closed, causing the total system failure.

  • Anthony

    “Anyone using a Windows PC has, from the beginning, used the desktop and Start menu”

    Nope, the Start menu appeared in Windows 95 and the Desktop was just the Program Manager before 95

    • Camilo Reyes

      I would argue Windows 95 marked the beginning of the modern PC. DOS and Windows 3.1x were precursors.

      • Anthony

        You can argue all you like :) Windows 3 was the first version that really had any traction AFAIK and I’d used older versions still

        • grovberg

          Congratulations. You’re very old.

  • Stephen Cunliffe

    The UX fail I find most frustrating at the moment is with ABMs. As per typical users I take out a set amount of money (lets say $100) the machine does it’s thing and confirms I have that amount available then asks if I want to do something else or quit? I choose quit and then I get 2 final options. 1.) quit with no receipt (enviro friendly) or 2.) quit with a paper receipt. Sadly like most people I choose #2 every time because I want to see my remaining balance! Then I throw the receipt away. If the stupid ABM would give us the option for a balance on screen, it would save thousands of dollars in wasted paper (and have to recycle much less trash).

    • Interesting. A lot of Australian machines do offer the 3 options. 1) No receipt 2) Printed balance 3) Screen balance.

      My two major pet peeves with ATMs (particularly the small in-shop kiosk versions) are:

      A) The random changing of input modes.

      * Start with a separate number pad – fine.
      * Switch to buttons mounted along the screen edge. … ok…
      * Now let’s change to touchscreen options for no good reason.

      B). The other thing: At the moment a lot of ATMs here flash a big warning for about 5 seconds: “Be careful: someone might be watching you enter you’re number!”

      The irony is, you sit there unable to do anything, just waiting for the number entry textbox to appear, and it’s like a signal to anyone behind you “Attention! This is the quiet, still bit JUST BEFORE I START TYPING IN MY NUMBER. Are you ready??”

      • Thomas

        I’ve always wondered why some ATMs (normally Commonwealth Bank) must have such loud noises on touch. is it for the hard of hearing or the blind / partially blind (could we use haptic feedback / or brail)? It’s a security risk, I don’t want the entire population of a busy intersection to know that I’m taking out $50 to split a cab, thanks.

        That’s it, sending them an email!

  • I’m one of the few that wasn’t bothered when Microsoft got rid of the start button and start menu. But… I’m not going to deny that’s one of the main complaints about Windows 8. Drastically changing the UI is generally not a good thing.

    I always opened the start menu up using the windows key and never really used the menu, I just used the search function. That function was never removed in Windows 8 so I was never bothered. Hit the windows key, start typing, use arrow keys, hit enter. The only annoying part was the search results took up the entire screen. I’d be fine with how Spotlight worked in Yosemite and El Capitan where search results shows up as a dialog in the center of the screen (similar to alt+tab).

    In Windows 8.1 the search results actually showed up on the monitor with the active window which was kind a nice. When they added the start menu back in Windows 10 I’m forced to look on the main monitor where the menu (and start button) is drawn and that’s a step backwards for me.

  • ATM’s UX is the worst! It wastes so much time, trying to figure it out in the first place. And then when you have to re-insert your card over and over again for every operation.

  • HMS10

    “Mobile Popup Ads That Fill the Screen (With No Easy to Find ‘X’)”
    This *Facepalm*

  • Brian Chappell

    Many USB devices have the USB logo on the top of the plug (assuming they haven’t put their own logo there. On laptops that makes it pretty simple to get right every time, on the back of a PC with the motherboard mounted vertically, it’s normally logo to the right (just like the cover of a book). I know this and still sometimes don’t look at the device, I look at the plug itself and it’s gap to the top.

    • According to the USB spec (USB 2.0, chapter 6.5.1): “The USB Icon is required […] The USB Icon is alsolocated adjacent to each receptacle. Receptacles should be oriented to allow the Icon on the plug to bevisible during the mating process”

    • Surprisingly, it wasn’t mentioned that many computers come with the USB ports inverted. I custom built my machine but used a case that came with pre-installed USB ports, have been struggling to remember that ever since. Wall outlets are the same way.

      There is no substitute for common sense (computer builders, electricians, etc.). And FWIW, I am both of those things, so don’t bite.

      • Brian Chappell

        I also generally custom-build my systems also used to work for a system OEM that used third-party cases and I have never encountered a USB port mounted the wrong way up. I’d go back to the case supplier and complain, it’s enough of a pain already without substandard manufacture as well.

  • ATM’s and train station ticket machines!

    • The weird thing is, it usually doesn’t take very long for someone to even accidently get the design right – like the step from Nokia candy bar phones to the first iPhone. Most of us started a bit suspicious and internally convinced that ‘we were perfectly happy with our little phone that did everything we needed’. Why would we need more?

      But sooner or later a friend or work colleague started showing us games or that funny video on Youtube and we start reconsidering. Within two years almost everyone’s idea of what a mobile phone was changed and the old version of that idea was no longer viable.

      Very quickly the phone companies realized “Ok, the game has changed. We can no longer expect to keep selling the phones we sold last year and the year before that“.

      Are we just waiting for someone to design a great ATM so people start saying “OMG have you used those ‘Brand X’ ATMs? They are SOOO good! I’m changing banks.”?

      Singapore has a great rail ticketing system, but I guess most of us don’t get exposed to alternative public transit systems to know that there better alternatives.

  • Isn’t it sad that we’ve had to invent this new job “UX designer” to police design? If only the designer did their job properly, and maybe used a bit of common sense.

    When I started coding in the ’80s, I learnt quickly that writing software I could use didn’t take long; making it usable by anyone took ages! We didn’t call it UX, but it was the same thing.

    Oh, and my bugbear in user friendliness fail? Forms that don’t disable the “caps on first character” in the user and password fields.

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