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What Is Usability?

Tim Gaertner

A common question in the world of User Experience is “What is Usability?”. Where does it fit into the world of UX?

The first thing to note is that Usability and UX are not the same thing. Usability is a subset of the entire user experience.

So what exactly is it then?

Usability pertains to making a task easy, whereas UX pertains to the entire emotional experience a user has with a company and its products.

Usability is about making task-based interactions intuitive and easy to accomplish for the user while also eliminating roadblocks. Crucially, it answers the question “can the user accomplish their goal?”

  1. Making tasks easy and intuitive.
  2. Minimizing steps and removing roadblocks.
  3. What are users doing / how are they doing it?But you have to remember that usability is just one of many layers that influence the overall user experience.

Here’s an example to demonstrate the difference:

Let’s say that you decided that you wanted to buy a new laptop computer. You get on to your favorite search engine and look for the computer that you would like to buy. After doing some research on a box store’s website, you decide to put the computer into your cart, pay online, and choose the store you would like to pick up the computer at in your hometown. Piece of cake!

After a week or so, you don’t know if your computer has been shipped to the store so you decide to go to the box store and check on the status. After entering the store, you don’t know exactly where to go or who to ask about your computer so you go to the “customer service” line. After waiting in line for 10 minutes, you finally get to ask the teenage boy (who looks like he hates his job) about your purchase. He says that you are in the wrong line and directs you to the back of the store to “online pick up”. It’s there that you learn that the computer was not in stock and that you could get a store credit or wait three business days for a refund on your credit card after you call the 800 number to request it.

One week and 30 minutes later you have no computer, and a charge on your credit card you are waiting to get back.

You had a task of researching and buying a computer and were easily able to get that done on the company’s website. This is good usability.

On the other hand, the entire experience in the store left a very negative impression on you and did not meet your expectations. This is a bad user experience.

So if we only think about usability, as opposed to the whole user experience we can still fail to meet our user’s goals as well as the goals of the business. That’s why in addition to usability, a UX designer needs to consider:

  • User interviews
  • Experience / journey mapping
  • Visual design
  • Interaction design
  • User personas
  • Information architecture
  • Content strategy
  • User testing

The user experience is the sum total of all these layers and is measured by the user’s emotional response.

When thinking of usability, the designer is only concerned with how easy it is to accomplish a certain task.

When the designer thinks in terms of the entire experience, they are thinking three main things:

  1. Who are the users?
  2. What makes these users tick?
  3. What are these users hoping to accomplish?

If thought is only given to #3, then like we saw in the laptop example, the end result could be disasterous.

There should always be a thoughtful approach to both usability and UX design.

If we as UX designers can use usability as a tool and not a crutch to avoid addressing other aspects of the user experience, then we will be able to make amazing products that are easy to use and that our users really do enjoy using.

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Tim Gaertner

Tim Gaertner

Contributer to the CareerFoundry Blog

Tim Gaertner is currently studying UX Design with CareerFoundry. As well as UX and UI, Tim loves his family, coffee, photography, copywriting, being outside, cooking, and lifting heavy objects off of the ground.