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Usability is a quality attribute that assesses how easy user interfaces are to use.

Why usability is important

On the Web, usability is necessary for survival. If a website is difficult to use, people leave. If the homepage fails to clearly state what a company offers and what users can do on the site, people leave. If users get lost on a website, they leave. If a website's information is hard to read or doesn't answer users' key questions, they leave. There's no such thing as a user reading a website manual or otherwise spending much time trying to figure out an interface. There are plenty of other websites available; leaving is the first line of defense when users encounter a difficulty.

How to improve usability

There are many methods for studying usability, but the most basic and useful is user testing, which has three components:

  • Get hold of some representative users.
  • Ask the users to perform tasks with the design.
  • Observe what the users do, where they succeed and where they have difficulties with the user interface. Shut up and let the users do the talking.

It's important to test users individually and let them solve any problems on their own. If you help them or direct their attention to any particular part of the screen, you have contaminated the test results.

To identify a design's most important usability problems, testing three to five users is typically enough. Rather than run a big, expensive study, it's a better use of resources to run many small tests and revise the design between each one so you can fix the usability flaws as you identify them. Iterative design is the best way to increase the quality of user experience. The more versions and interface ideas you test with users, the better.

User testing is different from focus groups, which are a poor way of evaluating design usability. Focus groups have a place in market research, but to evaluate interaction designs you must closely observe individual users as they perform tasks with the user interface. Listening to what people say is misleading: You have to watch what they actually do.