Usability: a critical piece of the UX puzzle

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Usability is just one of many components that make up the user experience (UX), yet it is by far one of the most important pieces of the puzzle. UX designers often make the mistake of assuming that end-users have the same depth of knowledge about the product that they do, and as a result, users face obstacles and issues when interacting with it. In order to avoid such problematic situations, it is important for designers to constantly look at the product from the user’s perspective and create usable products that help their users to achieve their goals.

Understanding usability

According to the International Standards Organization’s (ISO), usability refers the extent to which a product can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction in a specified context of use. In other words, it is the ease-of-access or use of a product, app or website.

As Interaction Design Foundation Co-Founder Mads Soegaard points out, a usable interface has three main outcomes, namely its ability to easily guide users through the experience, and help users achieve their goals, while it should also be seamless enough so that users can quickly learn and follow the same process on subsequent visits.

Studies have shown that investing in usability can help businesses go a long way in boosting the performance of websites and apps. A report published by the Nielsen Norman Group (NNG), found that companies that spent 10% of their development budget on usability saw an 83% improvement in their conversion rates.

Usability & UX

To take a deeper dive into usability, designers must know the difference between it and UX design. Usability and user experience are often used interchangeably, yet these terms refer to very different concepts and elements. While usability is more concerned with the effectiveness and speed at which users can achieve their goals, the user experience is focused on all of the key aspects associated with the user’s interaction with the product or service.

The concept of usability is much narrower than UX, as it’s centered on the ability for a website or app to achieve a user’s goal. On the other hand, UX is the end result of a number of design elements that have been put into place, while it’s also linked to other important human factors. In fact, usability is one of the key components include under the UX Umbrella, which was introduced by UX designer Dan Willis, along with visual design, information architecture, interaction design, user research, and content strategy.

Principles of usability

Websites and apps that would be classified as “usable” would be designed to be efficient, providing valuable information and answers to the user quickly, while they should also meet business objectives, record high conversion rates and ensure user satisfaction, before during and after interacting with the product. At the same time, enhancing usability can help you deliver a product that requires less maintenance.

In a world of 24/7 connectivity, most users today expect the same quality of experience as they switch between devices, which is why accessibility remains one of the most important design principles that can determine the usability of a product. Amazon.com is a great example of a widely-used website that is known for being very accessible as it’s optimized for desktop screens and tablets. The layout adjusts easily on various devices, while the mobile version of the website is designed to be very simple, and loads with almost no downtime.

Some designers would argue that clarity is a core principle of usability, as it lays the groundwork for a positive and seamless UX. If your objective is to help potential customers quickly find what they are looking, you should be focusing your efforts on eliminating any barriers or confusing elements that stand in their way.

Usability testing

When adopting a user-centered approach, UX designers will likely begin by conducting some type of usability testing, which essentially puts the user at the center of the development process.  This practice often involves monitoring users as they interact with prototypes and aim to complete tasks and this can be done for various types of designs, such as user interfaces or actual products that customers can see and touch. Through usability testing, designers can identify usability issues associated with design elements as early as possible, enabled them to make a fix before the product is launched or mass produced.

There are a variety of practical usability testing methods which can help you to improve the usability of your website or app, and ultimately enhance the UX. The most widely used testing methods, according to MeasuringU are: moderated in-person, moderated remote, and unmoderated remote.

In a moderated in-person scenario, a facilitator is co-located with the participant (usually in a lab), while participants and facilitators in a moderated remote situation are placed in different locations. Companies can also use software to do usability testing remotely, which is a great benefit as it allows a quick and easy way to seek valuable feedback in a cost-efficient manner from users in a variety of locations.

Best practices & tools

Just like any business strategy, planning ahead will help you remain focused on key objectives as well as the main user needs you are working to fulfill. Adopting a usability testing plan is a great way to put such goals on paper and make the case for why, what and how you will test. You can do this by defining the actual tasks that need to be tested, selecting a sample of participants, and preparing and conducting the test, and finally documenting and presenting the findings after all testing is completed.

There is no shortage of useful tools for designers looking to enhance the usability of their products, and UserZoom is probably one of the most flexible options, as it includes a wide variety of advanced user testing tools and features such as remote unmoderated testing on mobile devices and PCs. This tool is a great option for designers with time restrictions, who also need to test several aspects of an app or website.

UserTesting is a well-known UX research platform which has been used by designers for nearly a decade. The unique tool offers longitudinal studies and enables designers to select the user tester demographic, in addition to specific portions of your website that need to be tested. The formats of the tests are easy to follow, and the tool can be used before the product is launched.

Crafting remarkable UX

Although usability testing requires a great deal of time and resources, case studies from leading companies have shown that investing more in this area lead to positive results. For example, IBM went from having very low engagement on the company’s complicated intranet to creating IBM Dynamic Workplaces, the number one source of information within the company, by simply taking a number of steps to improve the usability of the website.

Usability testing is even more crucial for startups and businesses that are launching a brand new app, website, product or service, as it can help a product team get a much better understanding of target users and the likely path they would take to reach their goal. By creating a usability testing action plan and implementing the right design principles and testing methods early on, you can get valuable feedback which can be used to perfect your product and transform the experience into something that really resonates with your customers.

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