In July 2005, the usability specialist Jakob Nielsen wrote a deliberately contrarian article, advising that Amazon should not be considered a model for eCommerce site development and listing a number of aspects of the site that he considered to have especially poor usability. 

Some of Nielsen's complaints appear to have been taken on board since then; for example, the introduction of faceted navigation, which has made it much easier to select the best offerings from within individual product categories. The Internet-wide search option has also disappeared from Amazon’s site search. However, many of Nielsen's other points remain unanswered.

For example, Amazon’s product pages could still be described as rather cluttered; if you want to read a detailed description or a page count on an Amazon product page, then you’ll probably have a reasonable bit of scrolling to do. Nielsen’s view on this was that most long-term Amazon customers would probably be able to remember where to find things (making their exposure to various cross-selling options on the page worthwhile for Amazon), but that the experience would be overwhelming for new customers.

My main reason for looking back at Nielsen’s article is that I recently found myself wondering how the launch of the Kindle books store would affect the site’s usability. Previously, format wasn’t much of an issue on Amazon; the search engine would automatically select the most likely format (usually paperback) and the product page would contain links to alternative editions and formats, providing additional options for the user. All well and good, but if books are available as paperback, hardback and ebook (not to mention audiobooks and MP3 versions), then it’s going to become a lot more difficult for the site to work out which is the most likely format to show, or for the user to know which version to click on. 

Amazon’s search results don’t describe the exact format of a book, only the category it can be found in, making it rather awkward to work out whether you’re looking at the hardback or paperback edition. Although Kindle books are listed in the search results (located in a separate category to books), it’s still not easy to tell at a glance which edition you’re looking at.  

Once we arrive at a product page, the list of cross-links to different formats can be quite lengthy, particularly as the list contains both different formats with identical content, and different editions with slightly different content. All in all, looking for a particular format can be a rather unwieldy process.

One place on Amazon that is easier to browse in this respect is the author bibliography, which allows you to switch between all formats, paperback, hardback and Kindle books. But what if all of Amazon worked in a similar way? Compare and contrast to how O’Reilly present their book formats. O’Reilly has only one page for each book edition, which includes prices and purchase options for all of the available formats; ebook, print and a bundle of the two (the latter not being an option Amazon supports). As there is only one page for all formats, the search results become a lot simpler.

Of course, Amazon has a lot of useful features that O’Reilly lacks, such as one-click ordering or the choice of second-hand copies. Equally, if you’re primarily ordering paperback books, then Amazon may well be the simpler site. But with Amazon itself suggesting that eBook sales have overtaken hardback, then these sort of issues are only going to get more problematic.