Strategic Web Usability

Ask Dr. Pete: What Is Usability?

Welcome to the first installment of "Ask Dr. Pete" - I've decided to test a mini-webinar format (under 5 minutes) where I tackle answers to some common questions. I'm hoping to keep them educational and at least a little entertaining. First in the series is the obvious first question: What exactly is this usability stuff I'm always talking about:

There's audio in this one, so don't forget to turn on your speakers. Since this is my first entry in the series, I would love to hear any constructive criticism about the content or format.

Learn more about Dr. Pete at his personal project, 30GO30.

Steven Bradley

 · Saturday, April 18
Great Job with the video Pete. It was educational and entertaining. I really don't have any criticism, but I do have a question. When I hear the term learnability what comes to mind is being able to learn something over time as opposed to instinctively. Is learnability all about being able to quickly use something or is there something to learning that something over time.

As an example think of a typical computer operating system. Most modern operating systems are fairly easy to use right away, yet to know and understand each well you do need to spend some time with them. Would learnability be concerned with taking someone from beginning to power user or is it only concerned with making sure the early experience is intuitive enough to get you working with the OS?

Dr. Pete

 · Saturday, April 18
@Steven - In this context, I think we generally think of learnability as being how easy something is to pick up and learn the first time, or, in other words, how steep the learning curve is. This is especially important for website usability, where you generally only have a few seconds to grab someone's attention and orient them to your site.

On the other hand, I think there's an important distinction that you've hit on, which is that, just because something is complex and has to be learned over time, doesn't mean it's unusable. This is especially true for expert systems. No one would expect to sit down in 5 minutes and figure out how to use Adobe Photoshop or fly an F-18. That doesn't mean these things have poor usability; just that they're complex by necessity. Naturally, these things will take longer to learn.

Larry Roth

 · Saturday, April 18
Good presentation @DrPete. This will provide some helpful background information about usability for many folks. I like the section entitled "Usability's Cousins". I had never thought of the whole list of sub-disciplines like that and it is an interesting way to frame them--especially accessibility.

Dr. Pete

 · Sunday, April 19
@Larry - Thanks... to be honest, I was a little concerned that some people might think I was glossing over those related areas. I mainly wanted to give people a sense of the connection between them, since folks in the industry toss around a lot of those terms casually, and it can be confusing.

Steven Bradley

 · Sunday, April 19
Thanks Pete What you said makes sense and it's what I figured you meant. Even if it had another name it's important to make sure whatever you design is learnable. It should be fairly intuitive to begin using the program. How many applications do we all fail to use simply because we can't figure out where to start.

I guess the learnability over time depends on the application too. Some apps don't need higer learning to use them. Others do and maybe for those apps the initial learnability is in part directing you to become a power user.

Terry Bleizeffer

 · Monday, April 20
Nice work, Dr. Pete. I really like the five minute length. When I set aside time to check out industry blogs, I usually don't have more time than that to devote to a particular blog entry, and videos are rarely something that I want to do in chunks.

I'm not sure if this qualifies as constructive criticism or a future topic request, but in my experience part of the confusion around usability/UX/UCD/HF/etc is that the terms are sometimes used to describe product attributes ("That GUI is very user friendly"), sometimes used to describe a profession ("I'm a human factors engineer"), sometimes used to describe an activity ("I'm conducting a usability test"), and sometimes used to describe a process ("We follow a user centered design process"). And, often, it all gets mixed in together... like "Hi, I'm a human factors engineer and today we're conducting a usability test to evaluate the user experience of our GUI because we want it to be very user friendly." I have no trouble parsing that sentence, but Joe Developer or Joe Executive reads that and thinks, "Huh? Does this have something to do with personas?"

I'd love seeing a concise explanation of that stuff so I can point people in that direction.

Dr. Pete

 · Monday, April 20
Thanks, Terry - I absolutely agree that the way we use the terms is confusing. Honestly, I'm not sure we in the usability community even really agree on them or use them consistently. I find that "UX" especially gets used extremely broadly, to mean just about anything related to the process, profession, or goal of usability.

I guess the broader lesson is that we, especially when selling usability, still need to remember to avoid the lingo and try to talk in plain language. A lot of these terms are, unfortunately, just ways of differentiating ourselves from other professionals and even building fences, and end up being useless to the people we're supposed to be trying to help.

Tariq Alam

 · Saturday, August 22
I am doing my master thesis in usability testing. I want to know about different types of usability issues in web and specially in online communities like facebook and orkut. Please let m know about because I have no idea. Thanks

Aditya Khurana

 · Sunday, December 13
Dr. Pete - Like they say big things come in small packages. This is a great small article to get basic understanding of usability. Loved the "Usability's Cousins" section... this at-least clears the air for me on what is what.

Mike Skiurlaub

 · Friday, January 15
Your site is really great cause there I can find a great amount of the information for all the levels of the users.Really grateful for the video presentation!


 · Saturday, February 27
Satsfaccion is important part of usability and it's UCD where it begins.


 · Sunday, March 14
Very good presentation and very interesting blog.


 · Wednesday, April 14
Very user-friendly explained (not only this post, but the whole website). It's a really relief to finally know what all those different and difficult terms mean.

paris sportifs

 · Tuesday, April 20
as it is mentionned, 3 points to keep in mind :

1 - learnability
2 - efficiency
3 - satisfaction

To be complete, it would be great to have the tools to mesurate the satisfaction. Only analytics or user feebacks ?


 · Monday, May 24
Very nice presentation. Satisfaction is very important part!


 · Monday, May 24
i found this in google search, very intersting article, thanks for sharing

Erwin Wellen

 · Thursday, May 27
That Post is Full of informative. Hope u will share again with us.


 · Monday, May 31
I am doing my master thesis in usability testing. I want to know about different types of usability issues in web and specially in online communities like facebook and orkut. Please let m know about because I have no idea. Thanks


 · Monday, June 14
Use a consistent navigation structure, such as a menu of internal links on the top of the page or on the sides (sidebar) is a great way to improve the usability in my opinion. Most web users are accustomed to this structure and launch a new fashion with links spread across the page in places little intuitive, it will only make your visitors lose patience and abandon your site. Thanks!

Relogio de Ponto

 · Monday, June 14
Besides being directly linked to increased profits, usability is related to:

- Increased user satisfaction with a product. Imagine if, when buying a new digital camera, a user has difficulty lay in taking photos.
- Increased productivity of employees. This applies to companies with intranet, where employees need access to information to perform their daily activities.
- Improved perception / satisfaction with the brand. Products that provide better satisfaction to use tend to increase the consumer's perception regarding their value.
- Customer Loyalty. To buy a product online, the consumer chooses to shop? One that requires him to go through several pages, generate questions about shipping and do not give confirmation of purchase, or one that is swift, clear and agile?
Amazing video Dr. Pete!


 · Thursday, June 17
Your quote about "Usability is the science of making technology work for people" is perfect and works across so many situations. I'm surprised that you didn't address "accessibility" as a subset from the "making technology work for people" aspect.

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 · Saturday, June 26
Very informative audio, i also think you should add "simplicity" - everybody without any experience can learn it very quickly.

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 · Sunday, July 4
Thank you for this post. I really enjoyed reading this and enjoy coming to your page.
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