Five Basics of Usability


By Carolyn Sullivan

My family has no idea what I do for a living.  Their eyes tend to glaze over when I tell them I’m a UX designer, and I’m pretty sure my mother says a silent prayer that this profession will keep paying my rent.  But user experience isn’t a scary thing. Although psychology is an important factor, the core concept behind user experience design is usability. And usability, famously, doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to understand. So mom, here’s the lowdown on what usability is, and how you too can get started.

1. What is usability?

To quote usability guru Steve Krug, “usability really just means making sure something works well.” Usability, in a nutshell, is the measure of how well a tool or object works – be it scissors, iPads, or Facebook.  If you can use it easily, efficiently, and intuitively, that device (or application) has good usability.  If it makes you feel stupid or like you want to smash something (example: every fax machine I’ve ever used), that’s poor usability.

2. Why is usability important?

Let’s face it: an aggravated user is not going to stick around.  If he doesn’t enjoy the experience on your app, more often than not he can find what he is looking for elsewhere.  Poor usability is usually the root of bad experiences that cause a user to leave. If leaving is not an option (for instance, if he is using a work application), an unusable, time-consuming, perplexing user experience will only lead to decreased productivity.

3. What do usability problems look like?

Anything that creates confusion for the user is a usability problem.  As such, usability problems come in all shapes and sizes. Here are some common examples; do you recognize any of them from your own products?

  • Numerous competing calls to action on a single page.  Trying to fit everything onto a single page – especially your home page – means that nothing stands out, and you end up with confusing clutter.  Determine one primary action, with two or three additional secondary actions, and highlight those.
  • Confusing terminology.  If you use the same word in two different contexts, or use unfamiliar vocabulary, your user will be confused.  Assign a terminology tsar (or bring in a content strategist) to maintain consistency of voice and tone across your app.
  • Inconsistent mental models.  If your app doesn’t conform to the user’s expectations, you are inviting (at best) confusion or (at worst) frustration.  There are certainly unavoidable growing pains that a user will experience the first time they use your app.  Try to minimize this by validating your personas, performing usability tests throughout, and keeping things simple.

4. How do I start to improve the usability of my website?

Live by this mantra: you are not your user.*

A design based on your personal preferences will leave your users frustrated.  Instead, learn to think like your user. To put yourself in the user’s shoes, here are some questions to ask as you review your site or app:

  • As a first time user, how easy is it for me to determine the purpose of this app?
  • As a first time user, how quickly can I perform the intended task?  How steep is the learning curve?
  • As an infrequent user, how memorable is this app?  Will I be inclined to return?  Will I recall how to use it?
  • As a frequent user, can I perform my tasks quickly?  Are the tools I need easily accessible?

Though this is not an exhaustive list of questions, it’s a good starting point for helping you think from a user’s perspective.  However, there is no substitute for observing real users in action, through a process called usability testing.

5. What is usability testing and how do I do it?

Usability testing is getting users to use your site (or app) while you watch and take notes. At its most basic, usability testing can be done with a few friends, a laptop, a notebook, and a pen.  All you need to do is:

Step 1:

Define a few tasks for your app that you would like to test.Gather a group of 3 – 5 users** to complete these tasks.

Example: You received a coupon for 50% off a new toaster at site x. Use your coupon to purchase the toaster.

Step 2:

Observe your users as they complete the tasks.  Request that they vocalize their thoughts as they go, prompting them with reminders and questions along the way (Pro Tip: avoid yes or no questions when ever possible.)

Example: Let’s assume the user clicked on the toaster’s “Add to Wish List” button but didn’t say anything. You could prompt the user with this question: Why did you click on that button?

Step 3:

Document your user’s verbal feedback, but more importantly, watch the actions that the user took and the expressions on their face.  Remember: actions speak louder than words.  If possible, record the session for review later.

Some items to look out for include:

  • What was the user’s emotional response to the web page when they first viewed it? (i.e. excited, confused, angry, ambivalent, etc.)
  • Is the user getting lost or distracted in the site?
  • Is the user able to accomplish the tasks set before them?
  • Did the user’s actions match your expectations?

Step 4:

Collect your findings in a single document, and discuss them with the rest of the project team (including other designers, developers, marketers and anyone else involved) to determine how best to implement the feedback.

Some items to include:

  • Actual application errors the user encountered.
  • Areas of the app that confused the user.
  • The time it took for the user to complete each task.

Usability testing can be simple and inexpensive, and the more you do it, the better – every six weeks is a good rule of thumb, especially while building new features. Usability testing is the best way to determine what course corrections you should make before getting too far off track.

In Conclusion

Whether you are a UX designer or a mom, you now have the tools to recognize poor usability and make it better: Talk to users, learn to think like them, and test, test, test to continuously improve usability over time. Once you get going, you won’t want to stop – you’ll be well on your way to creating a remarkable user experience. Think about what you can do today to get started, and take that first step.


* While this is true in general, there are exceptions; Basecamp, for example, is one product whose designers and developers were their own users, because the product was initially built for internal use.

** You may be wondering if 3 to 5 users is an adequate sample size.  Usability testing focuses on why users struggle, rather than quantitative metrics of success or failure, so a small sample of users can provide plenty of useful information. Believe me, 3 to 5 users is a sufficient starting point for identifying key flaws in flow and usability.  As you grow, we do recommend setting up regular monthly testing for continuous feedback.

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