An Introduction to Usability and UX (User Experience)

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be aiming to acquaint you with the basics of UX (user experience), covering everything from research to testing and optimisation and best practices.

First up, here’s a brief introduction to usability and the defining concept behind UX.

What is Usability and Why Does it Matter?

According to ISO 9421–11, ‘usability’ is the length and breadth that any product can be used for, in order to satisfy specific aims effectively, economically and with satisfaction within a predetermined use.

In other words: usability is not just about easily being able to perform certain actions; it’s also about customer satisfaction.

Usability is not just about easily being able to perform certain actions; it’s also about customer satisfaction

Or as our good ‘ol friend the dictionary states - Utility: the state of being useful, profitable, or beneficial.

Good websites (referred to as products in this article) must not only be aesthetically pleasing, they must engage customers, too.

In this first step to learning user experience, we’re going to take more of an in-depth look at usability and utility.

Usability can be described as being the end result design process, centred around the user.

It asks the questions of how and why users target specific products, and it then evaluates what drives that decision process.

This process is a repetitive one and it is designed to continually improve outcomes based on each successive occurrence.

The 5 Criteria that Determine Usability

According to Whitney Quesenbery, UX Usability expert and once president of the User Experience Professionals Association (UXPA), the 5 criteria that must be met to prove any product (website, app, software, etc) usable are:

1. Effectiveness

Does the product facilitate goal completion effectively? The key to achieving high levels of effectiveness is to provide users with useful, meaningful information.

Usability answers the question, “Can the user accomplish their goal? — Joyce Lee, Human Factors Design at Apple

2. Efficiency

Efficiency refers to product speed, or how quickly a product can achieve its goal. In order to optimise this efficiency, you must first research how users like to work.

Perhaps they interface using smartphones, or perhaps they use PCs. Both options require their own specific approaches as far as navigation is concerned to maximise the product’s speed of operation.

3. Engagement

In order for a website to be engaging, it must not only be aesthetically pleasing, it must also be fit for purpose.

Engagement isn’t just about aesthetics, though. A website, for example, also needs to be easy to navigate.

4. A low Tolerance to Errors

It may not be possible to achieve zero errors in the design of any product. It is, therefore, important to minimise the number of errors that can happen.

When errors occur, to be able to recover and resume as quickly and seamlessly as possible is key in reducing frustration for the people using your website.

5. Ease of Learning

To ensure that you design a website which will be used, it needs to be easy to learn and, therefore, user-friendly.

Ever wondered why web pages tend to look-a-like? This is no accident, if a website follows a certain pattern then we know how to the website without having to think. Therefore, people achieve goals easier and quicker because they don’t have to learn something new — they naturally know how to use common web design patterns.

For example, on a product page of an ecommerce website, I’d expect to see a product title at the top, followed by the image, a description and an ‘Add to Cart’ button. Allowing me to understand the whole product and how to buy it in seconds.

If the images were hidden in some side menu that I had to reveal and the ‘Add to Cart’ button was a mysterious action applied to the product images, then I’d need to learn how to buy the product — therefore, I’d most likely find a site that I already know how to use so that I can complete my goal.

A Final Word on UX — The Importance of Utility

While usability is key, so too is utility: in this context, utility is about providing users with functions that they require in the first place.

Don’t bamboozle users with a website with too many distractions such as:

  • navigation menus that have more than 7 top level categories
  • Or, too many links within the content of the page distracting and blocking the user from reaching that all important goal

Keep things simple and distraction free.

The marriage of usability and utility results in user usefulness - this is what learning User Experience, and how customers behave online, is all about.