Usability and What it Means to the Rest of Us
Usability is a diverse topic with many ideas flowing in from experts and developers all towards improving a site or an app’s usability. Indeed, the topic of usability marks a turning point in web design and development that we should all be excited about.
Designers, developers, and everyone in between may already have some grasp of what “usability” means and indeed there is already a large and ongoing discussion on the topic.
However, for those of you who are like me – uninitiated in the nuances of usability – usability, at its most basic, is a measurement of “the quality of the user’s experience when interacting a product or a system – whether a web site, a software application, mobile technology, or any user-operated device.”
What this means is that if designers and developers were, at one point, concerned mainly with the designs and the features and the capabilities of their websites and apps, the topic of usability now adds a new dimension to the way websites and apps are built. That is, how do our ideas and innovation affect the user?
The reason why usability is more important now, more than ever, is because the way we use technology is changing everyday. Lines are blurred between what constitutes apps and websites and between what is software and what is hardware. The capabilities of engineers and developers are constantly evolving. New types of users are coming online everyday with new needs and new notions of what constitutes as usable.
Therefore, even the non-developer or non-engineer is required to be well versed or at least familiar with how usability affects their designs and their work. How does one manage to stay ahead of these constantly changing times? More to the point, how should these circumstances shape the way we think and build as designers, developers and engineers?
For the non-developer, the key is to first understand usability as a concept and let that concept guide your decisions in your designs and the way you work with developers.
The User is Always Evolving
I am not a developer or an engineer. I am, for the purposes of this article, a user. From the more recent developments and observations and I’ve compiled over the last several years, I am beginning to understand the importance of usability as it pertains to the future of the web and app development and every related field in between.
For instance, I recently witnessed a 3-year old child swipe their hand across a TV screen in an apparent attempt to change the channel. The child, being exposed to tablet computers and mobiles devices with multi-touch gestures enabled, now has the expectation that those experiences will transfer to other devices around him.
I’m 27 years old. Just a few years ago, the notion of “gestures” existed only in movies that were set in some distant future. In fact, I still think the stylus is a pretty cool even if my giant hands could never fully grasp one.
On the other hand, multi-touch gestures make sense. Multi-touch is the solution that developers and engineers came up with to enable users to manipulate the larger screens of their devices without the need for a physical pointing tool such as a computer mouse or a keyboard or a stylus. Multi-touch gestures have been shown to increase usability and has become so ubiquitous in the new technology that has come after its introduction that a 3-year old today expects a TV screen to react to a multi-touch gesture.
If we examine why that is, we can see how multi-touch gestures improves upon the different aspects of how usability is measured. According to www.usability.gov the five ways that usability is measure are:
- Learnability. Gestures are easy to learn as they offer a more direct physical manipulation through our hands.
- Efficiency. Gestures are efficient because they don’t require another tool other than your fingers to be effective.
- Memorability. Once you start using gestures, you’ll know how to use them again and again.
- Error Frequency. If done correctly, gestures work properly and have a very limited rate of error.
- Satisfaction. Gestures are satisfying to use as it mimics the tactility of everyday items. You swipe to turn the page of a book, you rotate items using your hands and these motions translate well to multi-touch gestures.
As I read the information and the discussions that I’ve found regarding usability, there seems to be the underlying theme that permeates every assertion about usability innovations. That is, simply put; there is a need to make everything the user comes into contact with make sense.
However, it also becomes apparent that the issue is complicated by the fact that what “makes sense” is always changing. Every new usability standard or innovation that gets implemented (i.e. touch gestures, the computer mouse, the graphical user interface, navigational buttons, etc.) adds a new layer to the current expectations of the user experience. Therefore, the criteria with which usability is measured is always changing and therefore difficult to define. There is no “passing grade.” There is only more usable and less usable.
Of course, there are the practical and testable methods that developers employ everyday to increase the usability of sites and apps such as more intuitive interfaces, responsive layouts, new methods to increase conversion rates, less invasive forms, faster loading times, readability, favorable color palettes, etc. which are current and tested. These all help to increase the usability of a site or an app.
But while developers and producers of content debate and discuss usability, it is worth noting that the discussion will always conclude with the fact that the implementation of these usability innovations is always necessarily determined by how well the user adopts them placing the user as the only common variable in every design and development consideration.
What This Means for the Rest of Us
If you’re a non-developer like me but still working in a developer-adjacent field such as design, this means that while there will probably never be catch-all solution for improving usability in our designs, it is always worth it to think about your designs with the user in mind. Not only will you be adding to the discourse surrounding the topic of usability (maybe from an aesthetic perspective), but you’ll also be more effective in conveying your message as a designer.
Too often, we think of ourselves as artists with limitless imaginations and capabilities in the way we do our work. And while this is always a good thing when it comes to providing fresh and innovative design work to clients, the truth is that sometimes our designs and our imaginations miss the mark. The discussion regarding usability is important as we continue to blur the lines between developer and designer, between software and hardware engineers. The better we understand each other’s work and how they affect the user, the better our solutions will be in the end.
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