Usability is about making something work well. It is about designing something, like a website, so that anyone, from your little sister, to your aging grandfather, can use it. Usability is where the interface between technology and human beings is defined. This interface can make or break a technical innovation and in the context of a website can mean that a visitor stays with you, or leaves after the first click. There is a book that is often called the bible of design, entitled, The Design of Everyday Things. This book was written by usability engineer Donald Norman (ex Apple usability engineer). The book combines human cognitive behavior and product design together to look at how design can improve the relationship that we have, as human beings, with technology. The book is really about improving usability
What is usability?
Usability, in the context of web design, is about ensuring that the design you create for a web front end (both website and web application) can be used, effectively, efficiently and easily. It is something that is above and beyond the aesthetics of a web design. It is about how the human user interacts with the site’s features and functions.
Usability has become the cornerstone of good web design. There is much research done into the various aspects of usability, from how a user scans a page layout, to how best to present a complex form, to what colors they prefer when using a CTA button.
Why is it important in web design?
Web designers want to create beautiful aesthetic websites. But a beautiful website will not be used if it is difficult to use. Creating websites that are both beautiful and usable should be the goal. Good usability does not have to compromise aesthetics. Creating usable websites is about allowing users to:
- Learn, through consistency of operation. This means ensuring that common elements within the site are the same throughout.
- Create a mental map. Websites that have a natural pattern to their layout, become intuitive to users, because they create a mental map of the site and know how to go to different areas and to use CTA’s effectively. This type of design constraint can be the most difficult to overcome, the difference between the mental map of the designer and the user can mean success or failure when it comes to user experience testing (UX testing – see later).
- See clear error messages. Error messaging is an underrated factor in web design. Users need to have a clear understanding of issues in the site as they come across them and in any actions they perform.
- Have a great experience. Ultimately, the goal is to have happy visitors. Visitors, who have a pleasant and simple journey when interacting with a website, are much more likely to return and to build a positive image of a brand.
How can we test usability?
One of the most important aspects of usability is to test out your design. Effective testing begins from the outset of the design, from the earliest storyboard brainstorming sessions. The concept of user-centered design dictates that throughout the design and development lifecycle, you engage the input of users. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) who develop Internet standards have some excellent notes on user centered design. One of the areas of user-centered design that is most applicable to usability is the UX testing stage.
Usability testing, sometimes called UX testing, is a crucial step in ensuring that a web design is optimized for usability. In UX testing, you take a set of users that represent your typical visitor demographic and ask them to use a working prototype of your website or web application.
The testing is not only to look at how users interact with the functional operations of the site, but also how they ‘feel’ about using the site, i.e. their emotional responses to the look and feel of the site. Typically, these sessions are videoed or recorded in some manner. The results are then analyzed to see any areas of friction between the user and the web interface. The usability can then be improved based on this feedback. The tests are carried out iteratively until the front end is improved to a point where it can be released into production.