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What is Usability?
by Princeton
07 Dec 2005 14:03

"Usability is a combination of factors that effect a user's experience when interacting with a product or system."

In the late 90's, I attended Human Computer Interface as an elective course for college. This was the first time the word "usability" came into my life. I was surprised at how important usability is in our everyday life.

This is just a short introduction on usability.

What is Usability?

Usability exists everywhere!

Do you know that major corporations pay $$$ to find out...
  • The proper location of an ON/OFF button of a remote control.
  • How to produce an ON/OFF button that is more visible?
  • How to create a broom that is more user friendly? (Funny huh? It's true. Have you seen the variety of brooms out in the market today?)
Why does it cost money? Time is money. Would you spend thousands or millions on a system that does not work?

The same thing applies to web design. People do not want to spend money on designs that do not work.

Usability is a combination of factors that affect a user's experience when interacting with your web site interface. According to web usability guru Jakob Nielsen characteristics of usability are:
  • Learnability: The system should be easy to learn so that the people can get work done quickly.
  • Efficiency of use: The system should be efficient to use, so that once the user has learned the system, a high level of productivity is possible.
  • Easy to remember: The system should be easy to remember, so that the casual user is able to return to the system without having to learn everything all over again.
  • Errors: The system should have a low error rate. If an error occurs, does it allow rapid recovery from errors?
  • Satisfaction: Is the user happy with the system?
Usability testing?

Designing and developing a successful system is about creating a positive user experience. However, creating this experience requires more than just a great design - it's about creating a useful and usable design that is right for your intended target audience.

Research has shown that users cannot find the information they seek on Web sites 60% of the time.

Other sources report:
  • "There are about 43 million Web sites, and no one knows which ones are usable. The best sites we've found are usable only 42 percent of the time, and none that we have studied are usable a majority of the time..." - (Jared Spool)
  • Studies by Forrester Research estimate several costs of bad site design. The two most striking are:
    • Losing approximately 50% of a potential sale due to "can't find product".
    • Losing repeat visits from 40% of the users who do not return to a site when their first visit resulted in a negative experience.
  • Usability guru Jakob Nielsen reports:
    • "Studies of user behavior on the Web find a low tolerance for difficult designs or slow sites. People don't want to wait. And they don't want to learn how to use a home page. There's no such thing as a training class or a manual for a Web site. People have to be able to grasp the functioning of the site immediately after scanning the home page - for a few seconds at most."
Note: The above statistical information has been acquired from http://usability.gov/basics/

Why Usability?

"Users have an infinite potential for making unexpected misinterpretations of interface elements and for performing their job in a different way than you imagine."-- Jakob Nielsen
  1. Usability promotes good customer satisfaction.
  2. Positive PR
  3. Optimal Return on Investment (ROI)
How to test your system

To test a system you must gather, evaluate, understand, improve, and define problems.

To discover what is wrong with your system you must acquire a panel of individuals; individuals who have no biases and who will view the system with fresh eyes.

According to Jakob Nielsen the most common issues that arise during testing periods are:
  1. The system tends to focus on marketing messages rather than the standard tasks a user wishes to achieve.
  2. Navigation problems will emerge.
  3. Search problems, where the user can't find the search facility or finds that the results are not applicable.
  4. Speed problems, caused by bloated pages
  5. Consistency problems, layout has changed.
  6. Layout colors / text size
You can also learn about problems by listening to your visitors, evaluating search logs and server logs.

Recommended Books...

If you want to learn more about Usability, have a look at the following books.

Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity
Creating Web sites is easy. Creating sites that truly meet the needs and expectations of the wide range of online users is quite another story. In Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity, renowned Web usability guru Jakob Nielsen shares his insightful thoughts on the subject. Packed with annotated examples of actual Web sites, this book sets out many of the design precepts all Web developers should follow.

Site-Seeing takes a fresh approach to Web usability by applying visual communication principles and decision-making to Web design. Specifically, readers will learn the key concepts behind visual organization, look and feel, technical considerations, and clear planning that stem from audience awareness. Through numerous, full-color examples author Luke Wroblewski deconstructs "the good, the bad, and the ugly" of Web design.

Homepage Usability: 50 Websites...
This brief but important book lays out a specific five-step strategy--called the Core Process--that can always be applied to the development of Web sites and fine-tuned to almost any type of project. Each step--defining the project, developing site structure, visual design and testing, production and QA, and launch and beyond--contains three related but distinct tracks. The text begins with a brief overview of each of the steps, then delves deeper into each with detailed explanations as well as specific forms and project-management strategies. This book does not cover back-end, server-side programming. Instead, it focuses primarily on the visual, conventional components of a Web site.

Joe Velez (aka princeton) owns and operates GO-TOTAL LLC-a registered company (web hosting/design/programming) in the state of NJ.

jeremy90 17 Mar 2007 17:53

very helpful, thanks

Antivirus 05 Apr 2007 01:34

Thanks Princeton, really well-written article. It's certainly inspired me to re-evaluate our site's usability.

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