Advice From the Pros

Usability is Not an Opinion

It’s key to user experience, but it is not debatable

User experience (UX) is a hot topic these days. As our lives grow ever more digital, every company is focused on improving UX, and even non-technical teams need to be involved.

But a big problem for those of us who aren’t part of the tech or product teams is that there’s a lot of confusion around what exactly UX is.

A frequent misconception is that UX is all about usability; people often use the terms interchangeably. Without a doubt, usability is important to UX, but it’s only one of many factors that influence UX.

One reason this is such a common misunderstanding is probably because usability is one of the easiest aspects of UX to measure. It’s critical to understand the difference between usability and UX while also recognizing the importance of usability—what it means, what your usability goals are and how usability testing can measure it.

Difference Between Usability and User Experience

While usability has an important impact on UX, usability is about how the structure of the site affects functionality. In other words, how easy it is for a user to successfully perform tasks according to your usability goals. Usability goals can vary, but they are typically speed, accuracy, satisfaction and overall success.

For example, a usability goal that you might have for an e-commerce site would be to reduce the amount of time it takes a user to checkout once they have finished adding items to their cart. Another usability goal might be to reduce the number of errors a user will encounter when filling out a form.

It’s easy to assume how a long, slow checkout process (or repeatedly encountering errors when trying to submit a form) will impact the user’s experience, but it will not tell you everything about the user experience. That’s because user experience is about how the user feels when using your site or product.

While user experience is subjective, usability is not; it is not an arguable factor. Usability can be objectively measured by employing specific methods of usability testing. However, if you don’t know what makes something usable, it’s kind of hard to conduct or evaluate any tests.

Usability Testing Across Five Dimensions

In order for a site to be usable, it must be designed to achieve five core functions. It’s these core functions, or dimensions of usability, that need to be evaluated in usability tests.

  1. Learnability: A site must be easy to learn so that you can quickly start accomplishing tasks. The more time you spend using the site, the easier the tasks should be and eventually, you’ll go from being a novice to an expert user.
  2. Efficiency: How quickly can you accomplish a task? This is ultimately impacted by learnability, but once a user has learned your site, a high degree of productivity should be possible.
  3. Memorability: Your site needs to be easy to remember so that a casual user who has not visited in a while doesn’t have to relearn it.
  4. Error Free: This one is probably the most obvious factor of usability. Users shouldn’t be prone to making the wrong moves. It should be obvious what the right moves are without encountering error messages.
  5. Satisfaction: The site should be pleasant to use so that users are subjectively satisfied while using it. Although satisfaction is subjective in nature, there are objective ways to measure it relative to the site’s purpose and the needs of your users.

The last dimension is the one that is most closely tied to UX. Remember, UX is about how your users feel when they are using your site, and what is satisfaction if not a feeling?

Now that you know the difference between usability and UX, you can start to think about UX in a broader context.


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Advice From the Pros