What is “Usability”?

What is Usability?  Usability is the ease of use and “learnability” of a human-made object such as a book, tool, or software. Usability isn’t just a concept, it is also a process that includes scientifically derived methods for measuring usability, such as needs analyses and testing of product ideas on end users.

When it comes to software, you can find out pretty quickly if it is usable. Have you ever sat down with a new application and are confused where to start and what to do. That can be a sign of bad usability. Or, have your ever visited a web site where you can hardly read the text because it does not contrast well with the background (such as blue text against a blue background). That is also bad usability and if it is your site and you are selling something… don’t expect good results because your visitors won’t be able to read your message.

I have a very simple formula for usability:

Easy to use

Think about it. If an application is easy to use, then it is easy to learn, easy to sell, and easy to support. If you send your sales reps out onto the street to sell a product that is hard to use, then the sales process takes a long time and is thus more expensive. Wouldn’t it be so much better if you took the time to develop the app to be easy to use so you shortened the learning curve, helped the customer, and helped your sales reps to sell?

Usability is not an accident. Every app has certain characteristics that must be met in order for it to be highly usable. Check off only a few and you will limit your software’s success. These characteristics are called a User Experience (UX) Hierarchy of Needs:. The answer the questions of whether the product is:

  1. Functional – Useful. Works as programmed.
  2. Reliable – Is available and accurate.
  3. Usable – Can be used without difficulty.
  4. Convenient – Super easy to use, works like you think it should… (This can be a tough challenge.)
  5. Pleasureable – An enjoyable experience worth sharing.
  6. Meaningful – Has personal significance…
  7. Efficiency – The user should be highly productive after they have learned how to use the app.
  8. Memorable – A user should be able to return to use the app and be able to easily pick up where they left off like a soap opera viewer can do after not watching the soap for 3 months. 😉

If you are a software designer and you get to #8, then you are doing well and you have created a product like the iPhone! It functions well, is very convenient to use, and is so enjoyable that you want to tell other people about how great it is. This is known as software nirvana.

Usability best practices grow out of knowing, designing, and programming to the UX hierarchy of needs (“UX”=”User Experience”). Here are just a few best practices to think about:

  1. Only say what needs saying and keep it short.  Break up your content, use content titles, bulleted lists, and use color coding whenever possible.
  2. Think foreground/background and make sure that your text or link colors contrast well with the background.
  3. Don’t put all the content on the screen at once.  Deliver info when it is needed.  Example: Comments in Facebook…  Only a few comments are shown at a time.  Clicking comments shows all comments on the screen and then the comments can be closed when the user is finished.
  4. Provide context-sensitive navigation.  Show only what the user needs, not everything that is available. Too much clutter causes confusion.
  5. Emphasize key functions over less important functions.  Not all controls are equal. Example: A screen might have a “create” and “cancel” buttons, but the “create” button is more important.  Make that button obvious and render the cancel button as text.

So, now that we’ve looked at usability characteristics and some best practices, what about the process side of things? How do you test users to ensure that you create an app that is easy to use? I could give you a long argument, but in the end it is a pretty short story. Here are 5 simple steps:

  1. Write the usability test focusing on tasks that you want the user to perform.  Keep the test short and to the point.
  2. Test a range of users.  Don’t just get users who fit your target audience, get people with a range of experience as well as users who might not like your product too.
  3. Perform the tests and keep them short.  Once you have your test questions, do a dry run and then evaluate the results so you can capture and correct problems. When ready, do short tests of 15-30 minutes and DO NOT GUIDE THE USER.  Just ask them to do a real task they would need to do in the program and observe the results.  Encourage the user to talk and ask questions after they are finished.  Finally, record the results ideally with heat mapping software and a record of where they failed or succeeded in their tasks.
  4. Evaluate the results.  Look for patterns and information that exposes flaws in your interface or basic assumptions about the app’s work flow… then discuss your results with your team since much of the information can be quite subjective.
  5. Rinse and repeat.  Do more testing as you collect information so that you obtain as deep understanding of your users’ needs and work processes.

Do you get it now? If not, then post a question here (or send your questions to [email protected]). Otherwise, put Google to work and just google “What is usability?” or “What is user centered design?”. You are sure to get thousands of answers…

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