What Is Usability?

Usability is being able to set your alarm clock in the dark.

Usability is working out how to microwave your dinner for 3 minutes on “high” without having to read the manual.

Usability is not having to remember how you did it last time.

“… usability refers to how well users can learn and use a product to achieve their goals, and how satisfied they are with that process.”  Usability.gov

Nicely put.  And both parts are equally important: you might get the job done, but if you’re tearing your hair out at the end of it, that’s not usable.  And it might look pretty, but if it doesn’t do the job, then that’s fairly useless, too.

Back in the pre-digital days, things had a limited number of functions:  a watch told the time; a toaster toasted; and, your TV had four channels.  And those shut down overnight (remember that? Wasn’t actually that long ago).

Now my watch has about a dozen functions… but still only five buttons.  Because you can’t fit any more on it, and still be able to use it.  My toaster can toast, defrost, reheat and, with a clever attachment that suspends your bread product of choice over the top, can also “lightly brown”.  Never used it, mind.  Never had the need to “lightly brown” anything.  Surely you either toast it, or you don’t?  But there’s a button for it, just in case.  And don’t even get me started on the number of buttons on a remote control to tame all those high-quality, original broadcasts.

And so things now have more functions, but no extra buttons, switches or knobs – which makes it not so obvious how to use them.

To make something “usable”, it needs to be:

  • Easy to learn – make it clear where I am, what I can do and how I do it
  • Easy to use – be consistent and put me in control
  • Easy to remember – it’s easier to recognise something, rather than recall it (“I’m not sure which it was, but I’ll remember it when I see it”)
  • Pleasurable to use – leave me with a warm, comfy feeling and I’m more likely to return
  • Helpful when I screw up – if I make an error tell me what I did, what went wrong and how I fix it

In this blog, I’ll be looking at how we can make digital (and non-digital) products more usable, examples of user-friendly (and not so user-friendly) websites and how you can make your website (and other stuff) more usable to customers.