What is usability?

16 July 2011

When asked about ‘usability’ in software, we usually talk about ‘easiness’:

  • making interfaces ‘intuitive’,
  • using ‘plain’ language
  • making controls ‘easy to see’.

In short, we describe ‘usability’ as helping users interpret an interface. But to be ‘use-able’, a tool has to be more than ‘easy to interpret’ – it has to help users achieve their goals. Usability, then, is not just about ‘ease’, but about providing users power, and explaining how that power can enable certain goals.

This may seem unnecessary. With the rise of ‘apps’, single-purpose programs, it’s tempting to think the ‘goal’ any software achieves is already well-expressed. But ‘apps’ aren’t ubiquitious: many users still rely on multi-purpose, extensible tools that they can adapt to a variety of purposes. Think Microsoft Excel. Think Adobe Photoshop. Think GNU EMACS. For their most important tasks: finding information on the web, processing data and producing documents, users still rely on multi-use applications.

For this sort of software, functions are not bundled into ‘wizards’, with strictly-defined goals in sight, but split across multiple ‘tools’. Photoshop doesn’t give me a “textured text” function, but rather a variety of mask, opacity and text tools, that I must combine to achieve the effect I desire. Google doesn’t give me a “find interesting comics” wizard. It gives me a powerful search engine along with the ability to filter by keyword and content type. I have to employ lots of different tools, often in creative and individual ways.

As UX champions, our challenge is to communicate the unexpected ways our products can assist a user. It isn’t an easy one. Users rarely care about even the most specific, task-orientated documentation, so they simply won’t engage with vague, abstract discussions about the ‘sorts of problems’ we solve. They find it tricky to memorize the purpose behind hundreds of obscure buttons, hidden links and cryptically-named functions.

Over the next few weeks, I want to think about the ways we might respond to this challenge. About how we can keep help content relevant and concrete, but still hint at the cool and suprising ways our software can assist people. About explaining interfaces split across separate ‘tools’, rather than single-goal ‘wizards’. In short, about integrating our software with so many of the user’s everyday tasks, it becomes truly indispensible.