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What is usability?

Posted by Jacob Creech on May 31st, 2011

Every day we talk about website usability testing, what it can do for you, how it can smooth out the design process, and how usability is an ongoing trend that people need to learn to focus on.

All of that said though, every day I get people asking me ‘What is usability, and why should I care?‘. Today I’d like to talk about what usability is, and why it’s so important. I’d love to hear your views on it too, so please feel free to share your opinion in the comments below.

What is usability?

So, what is usability? There are a number of good definitions floating around, these are a couple of the ones that really hit the spot:

The state or condition of being usable; The degree to which an object, device, software application, etc. is easy to use with no specific training – Wiktionary

Usability refers to the ease with which a User Interface can be used by its intended audience to achieve defined goals. Usability incorporates many factors: design, functionality, structure, information architecture, and more – Sitepoint

Something easy to learn and easy to understand. Seems simple enough, right? But when you turn your mind to thinking of sites or products that truly meet this goal, how many can you think of? What examples come to mind?

My examples:

Mac OS X

Mac OS X

Mac OS X is well known because ‘it just works’. The simple tasks you would want to achieve are very simple to achieve. The important information is easy to find. Things that say they will work with OS X just work.

Especially if you live inside the Apple ecosystem, everything behaves in a simple and logical way. No blue screens of death, no clippy, no ugly pop up warning bubbles. It just works.

Retail Me Not - save money with coupon codes

Retail Me Not - coupon codes made easy

Retail Me Not is a great website to help you save money on the internet. If you often come to sites that ask if you have a coupon code, then this site will save you money. They have coupon codes for tons of different sites, and the site is designed to make the process of using the coupon codes as simple as possible.

When you find a code you want to use (with the simple, straight forward search function), just click on it and it will be copied to your clipboard. If it’s a referral link it will open up in your browser for you. You can see which codes are working at a glance, and share your own experience with the community. A great way to save money.

Kiwibank is a bit different from regular banking sites. The navigation structure is surprisingly clear and easy to use, and for what should be a content heavy site, none of the pages slap you in the face with too much content.

The important things are easy to find and easy to understand, and you are never more than a couple of layers from the content you are looking for.

They also developed their site without flash (which seems to appear awfully often on banking sites) so it’s extremely accessible as well.

Some more examples:

I’ve actually wrote a post last year over at 1stWebDesigner talking about 9 great examples of well designed, usable sites. Check out the list and see what you think.

Another great site that shows examples of UIs that have had a bit more thought than most is Little Big Details. They have a whole range of examples showing how little details make a big difference to the user experience. Well worth a look.

Why is usability so important?

  1. It gives users a better experience: The more your users enjoy your site, the more likely they are to return, the more likely they are to recommend it to others, and the better your site or product will do in the long run.
  2. It helps you stand out from the competition: Why did the iPod sell so well? It was simple, did what users needed it to do, and not a lot more. It was an extremely usable product in a market where people used to think cramming devices with a million and one different features that barely worked at all was the way to succeed.
  3. It’s what most people want: Well there are a few people who actually like things to be complex and customise things in a million different ways, the mass market wants things that are simple, straight forward and just work.
  4. It means people can spend more time doing, and less time learning: The more usable the interface, the more time people can spend enjoying themselves, making purchases, interacting with your site and achieving goals that are important to you.
  5. You spend less time, money and effort on support: If your site or product is simple and straightforward to use it will require far less support, saving you time, money and energy.

Of course, there is more to usability than this, but these are some really fundamental points about why usability is so important. Regardless of what industry you are in, regardless of the sites or products that you build, good usability will make a big difference.

Your turn

We want your opinion

We want your opinion

So, you’ve seen some examples of what usability is to me and why I think it’s important, and now I’d like to see what usability is to you.

What are your examples of great sites? What products come to mind for you? Or are there any sites or products you can think of that are fail on the usability front?

We’d love to do a usability review of some outstanding sites so people know what is working, and why it works so well, as well as sites that could use some improvement to improve their usability. Be sure to let us know in the comments below.

Interested in learning more about usability and user experience? Curious to see one of our upcoming usability reviews? Subscribe to our RSS feed, follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook to keep up with all the latest news.

And don’t forget to share your comments on sites you love and hate in the comments below. Thanks for dropping by!

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  • Guest

    “No blue screens of death, no clippy, no ugly pop up warning bubbles. ”

    Wow, when was the last time you looked at Microsoft products – 1995?

  • Nick

    They still have plenty of annoying popups, even if Mr. Clippy is not bothering you as much. I would say it is better now, but there was a pretty low bar to start from.

  • http://intuitionhq.com Jacob Creech

    Well said, Nick. 

    Of course, I might be exaggerating a little for effect, but I think you get the idea. However, the two Windows computers I regularly have access to are both on XP and get plenty of bluescreens as well as the occasional corrupt registries and a whole ton of popups telling me one thing or another. 

    My brief experience of Windows 7 certainly shows it’s a big improvement, but I’m still not much of a fan. 

    Thanks for the comments.

  • http://twitter.com/ryanmargheriti Ryan Margheriti

    its a bad example. website popups still would have plagued macs back in the day, but they are a distant memory for any decent browser using person these days. they have nothing to do with the os. 

  • http://intuitionhq.com Jacob Creech

    When I say popups, I mean like the little warning dialogs that pop up in Windows – which is obviously OS related…

  • Jerry York

    Usability, The measure of the ease of employment of a tool by a person to do a task.

  • http://intuitionhq.com Jacob Creech

    Thanks Jerry. Any tools or sites you find super-usable that you’d like to recommend?

  • http://www.plotnikovs.info Aldis

    Interesting and useful post, that outlines some major points about Usability. But usability of a product or website depends on people and their knowledge. For some mac is easy to use, understand and operate, for some it’s very hard. For experienced (long-time) internet users using a website is very easy, for a first time internet user a website could be hard to use, even with a good user interface. 
    Another thing about usability is that, in my opinion, is very hard to create a good looking site, which would have perfect usability. Maybe it isn’t hard (because of great examples out there), but it takes a lot of time.
    While writing this comment I remembered an example, in my opinion, of bad usability. The tablet (or a mobile phone ?) ZTE V9. As I can’t find direct link to the product on official site I will point the first review I found on Google - http://www.netbooknews.com/13992/zte-v9-and-z-pad-7-inch-android-tablets-hands-on/
    The thing I found unusable and also funny is calling option, in my opinion, nobody should’t put this option in tablet.

  • http://intuitionhq.com Jacob Creech

    Thanks very much for your very thoughtful comment. Of course, the more familiar you are with a device, or the more experience you’ve had, the easier it will be. But something usable should be accessible to all, regardless of experience.

    I think sometimes PC and Tablet makers decide to jam as much functionality as possible into their devices, without considering if the functionality is actually useful or not to the end consumer. That ZTE tablet looks guilty on that count. Thanks very much for sharing.

  • http://nik-c.com nik_c

    Interesting how different people perceive software application (be they OS’s or web applications, web sites, etc.)

    I started off using Macs when I was in music production, then switched to PCs 10 years ago because I was doing a lot of CD Roms, DVD ROMS, and recently have come back to Macs because I am doing a lot of video editing on Final Cut Pro.

    Initially I thought ‘Wow – Macs, the best things on earth’ (that was coming to it from an Atari), and I did not thin much of PCs.

    However, coming back to the Mac from Windows is a serious let down. The Mac OS still seems to treat the user like a little child in a sweet store, everything moves up and down, screeches, sweeks, or makes some other sound effect, and is visually far too animated to not be irritating to me.

    And the thing is – I am sure we can customise it to not be so FULL ON, but using these computers as a tool – do I really want to spend hours trying to figure out how to make my computer not to behave like a Christmas tree …

    So this is a point well worth taking into consideration and I am sure we will all take this into account when we do our usability developments…

  • http://intuitionhq.com Jacob Creech

    Interesting point, Nik. I wonder how many people feel that way? I (obviously) use a Mac for 99% of everything I do, and the things you point out don’t bother me. 

    However, I can certainly appreciate that it would both some users, and they might well not be motivated enough to make those changes. 

    I guess what we can take from this is that usability can also be subjective to some extent, and based on a whole range of different factors. Is there any product at all that people would say is universally usable? 

    Thanks very much for sharing. 

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