CommonLounge Archive

What does usability mean in web design?

October 10, 2017

What is usability?

If something is usable — whether it’s a web site, an app, a physical object, or a revolving door — it means that

A person of average (or even below average) ability and experience can figure out how to use the thing to accomplish something without it being more trouble than it’s worth.

Krug’s first law of usability: Don’t make me think

As a rule, people don’t like to puzzle over how to do things. As far as humanly possible, your product should be self-evident, obvious and self-explanatory. Think of it this way: every question that your product raises adds to your user’s cognitive load, and makes it a little unlikely for them to be able to accomplish what they came for.

How we really use the web: by scanning, satisficing and muddling through

Much of our web use is motivated by the desire to save time. We scan pages instead of reading them for things that match the task at hand, personal interests, or hardwired trigger words (like Free!) We don’t choose the best option, we choose the first reasonable option (This is also known as satisficing). Nor do we take time to figure how things work — we just forge ahead and muddle through. While muddling through works, is efficient and error-prone, users will still leave for a better designed site.

Billboard Design 101, or, how to design for scanning, not reading

Now that we have a better idea of how people use the web, we can look into how to design for users that are whizzing by:

  • Create a clear visual hierarchy that relies on prominence, grouping, and nesting of elements to provide cues. We will discuss this more in Gestalt Principles of Grouping.
  • Stick to conventions unless you know you have a better idea and everyone you show it to agrees.
  • Make obvious what is clickable on a page, and break up pages into clearly defined areas.

Krug’s second law of usability: Users like mindless choices

It doesn’t matter how many times we have to click, as long as each click is an easy choice. So be wary of arbitrary rules like “Everything should be two clicks away”. As Steve Krug says,

“In general, I think it’s safe to say that users don’t mind a lot of clicks as long as each click is painless and they have continued confidence that they’re on the right track—following what’s often called the “scent of information.” Links that clearly and unambiguously identify their target give off a strong scent that assures users that clicking them will bring them nearer to their “prey.” Ambiguous or poorly worded links do not.”

Krug’s third law of usability: Omit needless words

This is how you can go about this: get rid of half the words on each page, then get rid of half of what’s left. Most of these needless words come in the form of happy talk — which is usually introductory text that is sociable but content-free. Another common culprit is instructions — eliminate them by making everything self-explanatory. Remember, users muddle through anyway.

In the next tutorial, we will look at designing two of the most important components of websites that add to their usability: Navigation and the Search.

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