Usability focuses on a set of rules and best practices that assess how users learn and use a product to achieve their goals. Usability also evaluates user satisfaction during this process. To obtain the necessary information about a system, professionals use a variety of methods for gathering feedback from users.
It’s common to hear about Usability and its relationship with websites, Web Design and, ultimately with SEO. Many Marketing related websites have already addressed the subject, but few really explain or understand this connection. Part of the content published about the topic is shallow, and focuses only on having a page for the keywords. Usability is not just making a “user-friendly” website or interaction enhancements to “sell more.” Usability is an integral and fundamental component of User Experience (UX).
Qualitative Usability Components
According to Jakob Nielsen, Usability is defined in five qualitative components:
- Learning: How easy is it for users to perform basic tasks the first time they see the design?
- Efficiency: Once users have learned the design, how quickly can they accomplish tasks?
- Memorability: When users return to the project after a period of time without interacting with it, how easy is to restore proficiency?
- Errors: How many users make mistakes? How serious are these errors? And how easily can they recover?
- Satisfaction: How pleasant is the design to use?
Usability is an area that is intimately linked to intuition and the ability to convey a message that, most of the time, is tied to a specific and important action. The interest in improving Usability must go far beyond the intent to “sell more”. For example, to increase the satisfaction and confidence of your users should be more important than just raising sales. You can do this through improvements based on Usability studies. However, it’s important to understand how the discipline fits into the UX universe, and how it relates to other areas.
From a Software Engineering perspective, Usability is integrated within Quality and seeks the effectiveness and efficiency of operating a system. The difference between effectiveness and efficiency can be summarized succinctly — Being effective is doing the right things (fewer mistakes), while being efficient is doing things correctly (less effort).
Components of a Heuristic Assessment in Usability
A heuristic evaluation is composed of a set of points of analysis or common sense guidelines. In usability, a heuristic evaluation is a quick and inexpensive method of improving a system. Of course, the same process can be accomplished through usability testing. But for this, it’s necessary to define a more complex and time-consuming process.
Most usability experts use a set of heuristics developed in 1990 by Rolf Molich and Jakob Nielsen. The ten directives of Molich and Nielsen are as follows:
- Visibility of system status
The system should always keep users informed about what is happening, through appropriate feedback within a reasonable time.
- Correspondence between the system and the real world
The system must speak the language of users, with words, phrases and concepts familiar to the user, instead of having system-oriented. Follow the conventions of the real world, presenting information in a natural and logical order.
- User control and freedom
Users who eventually choose system functions by mistake, will need a clearly marked “emergency exit”, without having to go through a lengthy dialogue. Support undo and redo functions.
- Consistency and standards
Users should not doubt whether different words, situations or actions mean the same thing. Follow the conventions of the platform.
- Error prevention
Better than good error messages is to design and prevent a problem from occurring in the first place.
- Recognition rather than recall
Make visible objects, actions, and options. The user should not have to remember information. Instructions for use of the system should be visible, or easily accessible where appropriate.
- Flexibility and efficiency of use
A system must meet both inexperienced and experienced users. Invisible shortcuts/accelerators for the novice user can be useful for improving experienced user interaction. Allow users to customize frequent actions.
- Aesthetic and minimalist design
Dialogues should not contain irrelevant or rarely necessary information. Each extra unit of information in a dialog competes with the relevant units of information, and decreases their relative visibility.
- Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors
Error messages should be expressed in plain language (without codes). State precisely the problem and, constructively, suggest a solution.
- Help and documentation
Even though a system that can be used without documentation is ideal, access to help and documentation may sometimes be necessary. Any such information should be easy to search, listing concrete steps to be performed and not be too large.
Before these guidelines were established, many professionals had derived versions. But often, there were so many guidelines that a specialized review could take days or weeks to complete.
User Experience, Usability and Accessibility
Much of this superficial approach exists because of the confusion of ideas regarding User Experience (UX), Usability, and Accessibility. These are three different and complementary areas that briefly overlap in principles, recommendations, and methodologies. Any of these areas goes beyond digital; it’s not something new that appeared yesterday surfing the Internet wave.
User Experience is the umbrella that encompasses areas like Usability and Accessibility, but it also encompasses Design, Content, and everything that contributes to the user experience when interacting with a product, brand or service. UX by definition, is an area that tries to understand users, and aims to meet consumer needs without confusion or effort. During the process of “understanding the user”, UX looks at the characteristics we value and what we need, as well as our limitations and abilities.
How Usability and Accessibility Relates to UX
Peter Morville, explains the factors that influence UX through a “honeycomb” of interlocking hexagons. The famous UX Honeycomb.
As we look at this connection between areas in UX, we immediately realize how Findability (which in a nutshell, is SEO) is related to Usability, Accessibility and, ultimately, to Information Architecture… While all this is something that goes beyond Digital Marketing, the concepts are rarely divulged. All these concepts tend, unfortunately, to stay behind the scenes until some value is attributed to them, coming from a need to differentiate a product, brand or service.
Nowadays any SEO blog talks about mobile updates, page-speed, and responsive websites. But no one really understands why we’re watching these changes, or why Google prefers certain mobile configurations over others; or why Google has started to pay more attention to structured data. It’s not because it’s prettier, but because it’s good for the user experience.
User Experience is not just focusing on having a good design, or beautiful interfaces. It’s about transcending what is material and focusing on creating an experience through a medium or technology.
Why is Usability important?
Every day, thousands of new products appear; new websites; new ways to present, represent and consume content. On the Internet, Usability is not a luxury, but rather a must-have for any website to survive. For anyone who wants to begin to understand Usability principles, I recommend reading the book “Don’t Make Me Think” by Steve Krug.
If a user entering your site does not immediately find what they’re looking for, all negative signals are amplified. Including the user tendency to be negatively aware if the page loads slowly; the perceived download time for the user becomes a negative evaluation factor. Imagine making you wait in a queue, only to be told at the end that your product no longer exists or is out of stock.
Many companies only consider looking at Usability aspects of a website when everything else has already been resolved, which is usually always later than desirable. It’s like asking an engineer’s opinion after building the house.
Good SEO work can make a significant contribution to improving your site’s Findability, Usability and Accessibility, and consequently improving your users’ experience when they interact with your brand, product or service.
For those who are more interested in exploring the Usability area, here are some resources that I recommend reading: