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What Does ‘Usability’ Really Mean? – A Web Designer’s Perspective on Empathy

One of the most important things about a website is it’s ‘usability’ — defined as “the quality of a user’s experience when interacting with a product or system.” Basically everyone in the industry agrees that ‘usability’ is critical to the success or failure of a business’ website. But what exactly does that mean? How do you measure the ‘quality of a user’s experience’?

It’s actually pretty simple: we’re all users. You go to websites. You use apps. You have doubtlessly been frustrated at some sites’ seeming impenetrability and delighted at how other sites seemed to know exactly what you wanted before you realized it yourself. You’ve experienced various levels of usability — and, much like Justice Potter Stewart famously said of pornography, you “know it when you see it”, even if you can’t put precise words to it.

That doesn’t seem terribly useful.
It doesn’t — but in fact, it’s the lead-up to the best tool we have to establish usability: empathy. The ability to imagine what someone else is thinking and feeling as they go about their world is crucial to creating usable websites. Here’s an example that I recently got via email from someone who works for me:

“I recently watched a toddler walk up to a TV and swipe his hand across the screen several times, getting increasingly frustrated and finally breaking down and crying. I tried to find out what was wrong, and all he would say was “It’s broken!” It took me almost a minute to realize he was trying to change the channel — the kid was used to playing with his father’s Kindle Fire, and to him, there wasn’t any good reason why the TV shouldn’t work the same way.”

That little kid had learned that screens were points of interaction, and by requiring a remote control, that TV just lost bigtime on his personal ‘usability’ scorecard. Users are a varied bunch, and every one of them has their own motivations, skillsets, and backgrounds — ‘usability’ consists of making a website that gives as many of them as possible easy access to the functions that they want out of it.

So there’s no measuring usability?
I didn’t say that — there are, in fact, ways to measure usability, they’re just not ‘crunchy’. According to, the elements of usability are:

  • Ease of learning – How fast can a user who has never seen the user interface before learn it sufficiently well to accomplish basic tasks?
  • Efficiency of use – Once an experienced user has learned to use the system, how fast can he or she accomplish tasks?
  • Memorability – If a user has used the system before, can he or she remember enough to use it effectively the next time or does the user have to start over again learning everything?
  • Error frequency and severity – How often do users make errors while using the system, how serious are these errors, and how do users recover from these errors?
  • Subjective satisfaction – How much does the user like using the system?

Now clearly, these are not metrics — not numbers that we can manipulate — but they are yardsticks that we can measure by. By getting out of our shoes and looking at our sites from the perspective of a customer, we can try to get a grip on how these five things affect their experience. With some idea of that in hand, we can design to improve them.

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