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What is usability in one word?


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#1 webword

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Posted 25 February 2005 - 08:52 AM

If we blasted "usability" into oblivion so that it could never be used again, what word or short phrase would replace it?

The Usual Suspects:

1. user experience
2. customer experience
3. human-computer interaction
4. human factors
5. ergonmics
6. user friendly
7. easy-to-use
8. user-centered design

These aren't too bad really. But the more I think about it, and the more I talk about it, I think usability is best summed up with this word:

--> EMPATHY <--

No word better describes the intent of usability.

(OK, so it isn't perfect, but what word is better? What do you think?)

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#2 adriang

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Posted 25 February 2005 - 11:27 AM

First reaction was "butler-service". i.e. something or somebody does things for me, anticipates my needs, smooths over the cracks, doesn't hassle me unless it's needed (unless I told it not to).

Not sure if that is what you meant? :?

#3 bwelford

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Posted 25 February 2005 - 11:42 AM

In another thread, we came round to the view that the possible negative associations for the word 'user' meant it should possibly be avoided, despite its wide-scale acceptance.

So I started off thinking 'visitor friendly'. However the 'friendly' seems a pale shadow of the concept we would want to be invoking, given the context of this thread.

I have no obviously better suggestions. My natural reaction is to go with 'visitor-centric design'. This requires my standard spiel re customer-centric. In other words that the '-centric' part of the word really means trying to get into the skin of that visitor, so that you approach the website with all the knowledge, perceptions and cultural baggage of such a visitor.

#4 cre8pc

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Posted 25 February 2005 - 11:48 AM

Too funny John!

Last night I was lying awake in bed, unable to sleep, thinking about just this very thing.

I asked myself, "If we can't agree on what usability is or what it means, is there another word that better describes it?'

And it came to me, fairly quickly, that usability is the same as being *co-dependent*!

For anyone who has lived with one, or is one, a co-dependent personality will do anything to make a situation work better, and will sacrifice their soul to please someone else, because they're dependent on getting something they believe they need in return. Could be money, being taken care of, love...

Another way of looking at is I recalled a time in my life when I was completely emotionally co-dependent on my first husband. I adjusted my mood to fit whatever his was. If he came home happy, all was well. If he came home unhappy, (which was often) I was a mess and did whatever I could possibly think of, even if it meant giving up something, to make HIS life experience better.

I've since become independent to a fault (just ask my new husband!) :wink:


Anyway. The way I got to this pathetic line of thinking is that the goal of making something usable is to make it work the way you want it to. I'm aware some usability folks love the line by the vacuum cleaner guy, where he says "I just believe things should work properly."

The usability industry can argue until they're purple about the proper way to do usability testing, but again, the goal of it is to *make things work properly*. It's our job to watch people, and how they use something that's built - whether a web site or software app.

And, we're so intent on studying them and making them happy, that we just can't stand it when our users (I hate that word) are not.

We're user experience co-dependents. (okay, that's more than word.)

Now, where's my prozac. :doh:

#5 RonZ

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Posted 25 February 2005 - 02:56 PM

What do we want it to mean? It's not set in stone, and there's not much agreement. I was shocked by the first entry Google gives for "define usability". (And amused by the second, where Peter Merholz removed my suggestion that might want to stick to discussing things he knows about rather than creating strawman arguments based on what he knows little or nothing about.)

What will we do to ensure it's meaning? I'm far more interested in this second question. When a person addresses it, I can judge how much I care about their answer to the first.


As for "empathy", most usability methods certainly depend upon it. I certainly think that empathy is what many are really speaking of when they talk of what differentiates them from those they feel cannot design as well as they. Empathy certainly gets you a long way.

#6 AbleReach

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Posted 25 February 2005 - 04:49 PM

Arg! Am I laughing or in need of something for a churning tummy?
I... can't.... tell....

OK, I'm getting serious now.

Functional design is another description that's been beaten to death. However, I'm going with functional design, ESPECIALLY as opposed to co-dependence facilitation.

My therapist would be proud.

Is it too early for valium?

Elizabeth

#7 Ruud

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Posted 25 February 2005 - 11:28 PM

Obvious.

The word you're looking for is obvious.

Obvious design is usually so good that we (a) don't experience it as design(ed) perse and, (B) don't find it obvious but even natural. Obvious design is your ballpoint. Your mouse.

At times obvious design is "just" convention(al). A square [] means stop. One triangle > means play. Two triangles mean fast forward >> or fast backward <<. (I've just been toying with an audio device where << and >> meant previous/next and +/- meant forward/backward.....)

It's obvious (or for some people "obvious") that the main story, the main content, is in the middle column. It's obvious that the links in the right column are somehow related to this content.

It's obvious how this form works.

You're obviously looking for the word obvious.

#8 adriang

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Posted 26 February 2005 - 07:07 PM

Usability is just a measure of our failings to offer the ultimate product/service. The ultimate in usability is a point where the very concept of usability isn't required. i.e. things (products/services/tools) just know what our goals are and simply fulfill them without any effort from us whatsoever. We don't even know we are using them because they require absolutely no effort on our part.

Until we have the ability/desire/knowledge to get to this end game we have the term and concept of usability which is actually a measure of how much further we are along the path to perfection. Therefore you could say another word for usability is imperfection.

As an example: To help me fill out tax returns I can get various software products or even consultants to help. What they actually do is ask me a series of questions. The end game as far as uability goes would be for the software and/or consultants to just take care of my tax return with no effort from myself (by effort I actually mean time - from my point of view it needs to be instantaneous, almost without me thinking about it). Therefore they wouldn't ask me questions and so from my part there's no interaction going on, and therefore no need for usability.

Obviously the end game is a long way off.

#9 gravelsack

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Posted 28 February 2005 - 10:17 AM

With a few exceptions, a web sites exists to be used.

So the word I would favour is 'efficiency'.

#10 AbleReach

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Posted 28 February 2005 - 02:30 PM

Is it efficient to serve the minority as well as the majority?
Maybe "usable" is an effective descriptor.

Elizabeth

edited to add this p.s.
Yes, I know this brings the term usability full circle.
Usable is a more accessible term than accessible. Accessible has a legalistic twinge to it.
I really like "user-friendly.

#11 adriang

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Posted 28 February 2005 - 03:09 PM

With a few exceptions, a web sites exists to be used.


I think that's part of the problem!

#12 whitemark

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Posted 28 February 2005 - 08:25 PM

Me, Me, Me, Me, Me, Me ------ Yeps that's the person browsing your site ...
Usability -> "It's all about me, not you."

Oh The Irony : webword, your blog is somehow broken ... whenever I try to visit any particular post through bloglines on my Opera 7.52u1, I get the following PHP error - "Bad arguments for API function".

#13 gravelsack

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Posted 01 March 2005 - 12:34 PM

Is it efficient to serve the minority as well as the majority?


If you first draw up a spec for what your web site is supposed to 'do', target market, end objective etc etc then usability=efficiency (yeah, its a 'sub' of efficiency, but if the word 'usability' didn't exist we all do just fine with 'efficiency'.

A nice definition of 'efficient' that works well here:

Producing a desired effect, product, etc. with minimum of effort, expense, or waste


If the desired effect is to be serve the minority as well as majority, then 'efficiency' is appropriate.

#14 Faith

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Posted 01 March 2005 - 10:44 PM

Hi all,
I am just learning the ropes in web site designing and one aspect that i am really interested in is functionality and usability.....i have a question since we are talking about usability here...

Are there any set standards for usability I web site designing? are there any commandments that i have to follow???

Would really appreciate the help!!!..thanx.

Faith

#15 webword

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Posted 02 March 2005 - 09:02 AM

Oh The Irony : webword, your blog is somehow broken ... whenever I try to visit any particular post through bloglines on my Opera 7.52u1, I get the following PHP error - "Bad arguments for API function".


This is pretty frustrating. Other folks have told me that they are having problems getting my RSS feed. Thanks for providing me with more data.

For what it is worth, I plan on updating WebWord. Right now I am using PostNuke. It isn't working for me. Too powerful; too much useless functionality. It is also prone to failure. I'll either be using Wordpress or Movable Type, but probably Wordpress. I'm going back to a very simple look and feel.

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Industrial Strength Usability
Usability Consulting --> http://oristus.com
Usability Blog --------> http://webword.com

#16 webword

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Posted 02 March 2005 - 09:10 AM

Faith wrote...

Are there any set standards for usability I web site designing? are there any commandments that i have to follow???


This is an innocent question but it can generate a true firestorm. There are very few "hard and fast" rules with usability. There are many reasons for this which I won't explain right now so we can keep this simple. I would just keep a couple of things in mind. First, there are a lot of opinions about usability. Second, there is a lot of data available to answer your questions. Third, there are many useful usability methods. Take your time and judge the value on your own, as you learn more.

For now, I suggest getting some background. I point a lot of novices to this site:

http://www.usability.gov

Also, be sure to return to this forum. There are some smart folks here.

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Usability Consulting --> http://oristus.com
Usability Blog --------> http://webword.com

#17 cre8pc

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Posted 03 March 2005 - 10:19 PM

Hi Faith. Welcome to the forums :wave:

The biggest "commandment", for me, is also the hardest, and that is, "Know your end-user (visitor/customer) and give them what they want, how they want it and when they want it or need it."

I try to keep some standards type stuff here:

User Centered Design Standards but it's nowhere near enough and, like John Rhodes says, the very question is known to raise a jolly ruckus in some parts of the usability community.

There's always a question of whose standards, why bother and what is agreed upon. :wink:

#18 davidinnotts

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Posted 05 March 2005 - 08:59 AM

Webword, your link to the US gov't website in usability (search also for useability) at www.usability.gov is great! It does point out, though, that accessibility (by definition - for the disabled) is an important part that no-one's mentioned so far.

It's my thought that if you plan a page and site for disabled access - including all the needs of other people - it will automatically enhance everyone's experience of using a website. So maybe 'accessible' is a good replacement word for 'usable'.

The W3C is currently working on new guidelines for accessibility and would welcome comments, suggestions and queries from programmers and developers. I get to hear a lot about it (too much?) because my son's on the working party and dumps on me when things get frustrating! You can visit the feedback page through www.usability.gov, from the accessibility section.

#19 bwelford

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Posted 05 March 2005 - 09:05 AM

Welcome to the Forums, davidinnotts. :wave:

I think the topic you're mentioning is one most of us do not think enough about. The more boosters there are, the more we'll all give it the attention it deserves.

#20 davidinnotts

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Posted 05 March 2005 - 09:31 AM

bwelford, thanks for the welcome.

You're right - accessibility doesn't get enough exposure. I've gathered that in Europe, all major sites are supposed to have been made accessible to the disabled since 1998!

I'm told - though this isn't from hard evidence - that the major problem is for those who use text-to-speech software, which reads through the HTML code, speaking text as it finds it. Items which are placed in the coding order illogically can, of course, be made to come out on the visible page anywhere you like - but to the blind or partially-sighted using a text-to-speech reader, navigating a poorly-planned page can be a nightmare. So, for them, the coding order is crucial if the page is to make sense.

Also, in common with people looking at a page with images disabled, the lack of image alternate text can make a lot of the page invisible, and the common use of unimaginative alt tags ('image 43') and of the same header ('Blaggers Big Site') for most of the pages in a site can be a huge hindrance to navigation. Of course, this is all contrary to best practice' anyway, but you see it so often!

I can blame poor programming of database-driven sites for some of this, but it must mostly be an unholy mixture of ignorance and apathy, which might be excusable in private sites, but is definitely culpable when you see it in major companies' and government organisations' offerings.

Finally, can I ask: who loses money when a commercial site frustrates the viewer?

#21 chileduck

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Posted 05 March 2005 - 12:21 PM

Oh... let me try! One word: Habitability.

Properties of an habitable environment:
it is comfortable
things are where you expect them to be
you get work done with a minimum of effort
it is pleasant to be there.
things all make sense
if problems do occur, it is easy to fix them.
it's safe.

I could go on, but I hope you see what I mean by habitability. It goes slightly beyond usability in that speaks to the users whole environment and what makes that environment livable.


I just stumbled onto this forum through a link in the SearchEngineWatch newsletter. I have been involved in software human factors since the early days (when it was still called software human factors :? ) I have preached usability for 25 years.

Habitability was a word coined by W. C. Watt in an article in "American Documentation" in 1968 to describe the properties of a language that would make it usable in a particular domain. I have since used the term to describe and evaluate the usability of Natural Language interfaces.

For me, habitabilty and usability is all about meeting user expectations. And how do we do that? We have to know what those expectations are..

I'll stop now.

#22 bwelford

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Posted 05 March 2005 - 01:02 PM

Welcome to the Forums, chileduck. :wave:

Habitability, eh... I don't think it will beat the opposition but it has some nice associations. I guess a definition might be "makes you feel at home". Sounds like a good objective for a website, I would think. :D

#23 chileduck

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Posted 05 March 2005 - 01:20 PM

Habitabilty doesn't exactly roll off the tongue does it? But your "feel at home" definition tells me you got the point.

#24 kensplace

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Posted 05 March 2005 - 07:37 PM

How about

EASY

The web site must be easy for me to use.
The web site must be easy for people with ANY disability (within reason, and the law is unclear on this point...) to use.
The website must be EASY to understand
Easy to trust, easy to remember, easy to like.
Easy to navigate, Easy to comprehend, easy to find data on.

In a word, easy.

If something is not easy, its not usability.

#25 webword

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Posted 11 March 2005 - 08:40 AM

I get the feeling that we all agree on the concept of usability. There is a nice cluster of ideas and the words we are using all seem to be similar.

However, now I have to throw in a monkey wrench. Does usability exist at all? After my original posting here on the word "usability" I started to wonder if usability is real at all. It isn't as simple as you might want to believe! Here's something I posted:

http://tinyurl.com/4lo6k

Any thoughts on this?

JSR


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Usability Blog --------> http://webword.com

#26 Ruud

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Posted 11 March 2005 - 10:16 AM

I feel like I'm either a complete simpleton when it comes to this usability "stuff" or that I've ended up in a semantic la-la-land. ....

I'm not sure if you're on the route of Kurt Godel here or Rene Margritte but in either case I think I have firmly lost you.

It isn't as simple as you might want to believe!


Erm, well, getting there might not be - but to me the initial idea is simple.

Take your computer setup. Lay the keyboard upside down, rotate the monitor so the screen looks up. This is not a usable setup. Dot.
Put stuff back in place and life is easier again. Now stop using your mouse. Use the keyboard only. The system has become less usable again. Adding the mouse increases the usability of it. So what if you can add a mouse but not use it, or only with great difficulty? Then you have to come up with a system which (A) aids in increasing the level of easy usability for the mouse-less and (B) doesn't interfere with the of easy usability for those who have and can use a mouse.

Usability methods help foster satisfaction, efficiency, desirability, and more, but usability methods don't produce usability itself.


Is this where the semantic mess comes from then? When you use the one-worder Usability you mean "the techniques and methods" and I mean the final usability itself?

It seems to be so:

Instead, usability is a label given to the results that we see or want.


Well yes, I thought that was obvious? I'm usually pretty OK with taking words for what they are. In the case of usability I see no problem staying with the original definition of usable:

1 : capable of being used
2 : convenient and practicable for use


There are methods to increase both 1 & 2 - but the methods to arrive at a certain point of course shouldn't be confused with the point itself.

To translate this for myself, in order to make more sense out of it, to me this is what you write:

Eatability doesn't exist. Instead, eatability is a label given to the results that we see or want. Let's not mistake the outcome of the eatability process (e.g., cooking) as eatability itself.


Good idea. Let's not say that usability techniques equals usability, nor that usability methods equal usability. As far as I see it, that was and is already the way it is setup in the language .... Seems to me like somehow somewhere you mixed the two up?

#27 adriang

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Posted 11 March 2005 - 07:25 PM

You can measure temperature but you can't measure usability. For example, I can say that it is 78 degrees Fahrenheit in my room but I can't say that my room has any type or level of usability. There is not a usability metric


I think usability is measurable. Usability is measured in the expended effort to complete a task or meet a goal. The unit of usability is "effort".

Now stop using your mouse. Use the keyboard only. The system has become less usable again.


Less usable because it requires more effort. Assuming you could do everything via the keyboard (I say could 'cos I'm not sure how you'd move a cursor, in say a drawing package, without the mouse) then it requires more initial effort to learn the keystrokes. By comparison, learning how to move a pointer with a mouse is much easier and quicker to master, hence more usable for the first time user.

However, once you've learnt the keyboard shortcuts then it may actually be easier and quicker to use the keyboard shortcuts than moving your hands from the keyboard to the mouse!

An example of this is when I'm in Word. I sometimes want to browse a website. The way I actually do it is by using the mouse to click on the IE shortcut tray icon which launches Explorer. Instead of moving the mouse pointer to the top of the screen to click the URL entry box, I simply use <alt>+<d> with my left hand.

It's a small example but demonstrates that it's quicker for me (and requires less effort) to use it this way. I'd argue the keyboard shortcuts give me better usability, measured in my expended effort.

This example also reflects the difference between usability for a first time user (i.e they'd need to learn the keyboard shortcuts) and the seasoned user (ie they've learnt the keyboard shortcuts and so it's easier to use them than move the hand from the keyboard to the mouse).

The complexity is understanding effort in terms of time and thought.

Just one further thought...

I can't say that my room has any type or level of usability


Like a car has no speed unless it's moving, a room has no usability unless it's being used. I'd say the level of usability of a room is dependent upon how you want to use it, and then it's a matter of how easy it is for the room to adapt to your needs. Again we're back to the level of effort you need to expend.

#28 JAT

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Posted 25 August 2005 - 01:09 PM

I have 3 words to convey our meaning of usability ( and they are easier to spell)

1) Practical
2) Logical
3) Effective

But what do I know? I'm just a geeky programmer.... :)

- Alan



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