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Usability 101

Friday, August 28th, 2009 by | Filed Under: Web Design

Bad usability usually leads colossal losses for product manufacturers. This seemingly basic concept is the key to enhancing user experience and increasing product sales. The point being: if it isn’t easy to use, why should anyone use/buy it?

Let’s take a few examples to understand what usability is and why it is important. Do you know what the following sign depicts?


You probably got it right without much thought. This is one of the goals of usability: Complete the task or tasks without making the user think too much. This is an example of high usability. Now let’s look at another example, do you know what the following sign is trying to communicate?


It’s obvious that the designer of this signage is trying to convey, “When there is a fire, do not use the elevators, rather use the stairs”. Now, imagine you are in a building which is on fire and you see this sign. As it takes more time to read, you’d probably use the drawings to understand the message.

The top and middle drawings are self-explanatory. However, the stairs image is where you, a person trying to escape, might take a while to decipher. Why? Well…the sign doesn’t tell you which way to go. It shows a person going downstairs, while there is another person going upstairs. In a real fire situation, this would lead to chaos and a safety nightmare! This is an example of low usability and the consequences it can lead too can be drastic.

What is Usability?

Usability refers how easily a user can interact with a product to perform a certain task. Considering how broad this definition is, it is not surprising that usability is applicable to many products and processes, such as signage, software, books, web sites, and household products.

Usability is very common in everyday life. For example, do you remember how difficult it was to record your favorite programs by using a VCR or how easy it can be to purchase a product from a web site that has no usability errors? I’m sure you’ve had your fair share of usability related issues.

Before you read on, take a minute to list your favorite products and web sites. Three each will do.

When is a Product or Web Site Usable?

There are several factors that can be considered for gauging the usability of a product. The key factors are:

Easy to learn: Users should intuitively know how to use the product and its features. The last thing you want is to have a user read through pages and pages of a user manual.

Memorable: After using the system, users should be able to re-use the system without going through the manuals again.

Satisfaction: Users should appreciate using the system. It should be a pleasurable experience.

Now, look back at the list you created. Odds are that the items you’ve listed excel at the factors listed above.
Usability is the key to making successful products and web sites.

~Rupen Sharma

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