Heuristic: Adj. Using experience to learn and improve.
– Merriam Webster Simple Definition
Anyone involved in the software field in any capacity has seen this word, often thrown about by UI or UX designers as a complicated way to say “Your design sucks…dumb it down!”…at least that’s the view of many on the technical side of software design. What UI/UX designers are in fact trying to do when they throw the term around is to advocate for system users, the people who are actually going to have to use the product. They are the champions of the users, fighting on their behalf to make technology easier for the average Joe and Jane to use.
So what exactly is usability? It’s not code for dumbing something down; it’s actually a method for measuring the following aspects of user interactions with a software platform, website or other technology:
1) Learnability – How easy for a brand-new user is it to accomplish basic tasks?
2) Efficiency – Taking it to the next level, how quickly can those users complete tasks?
3) Memorability – Once the users have stopped using the system/software/website for a while, how quickly can they get back to their proficiency rate when they use it again?
4) Errors – How many errors are there, how serious are they, and how quickly can users recover from them?
5) Satisfaction – How much do users like using the technology?
These aspects of usability were defined by Dr. Jakob Nielsen, a Danish tech consultant who is considered the father of usability. Dr. Neilsen was one of the first heavy hitters in the tech industry to recognize that in order for technology to be successful, it had to be used; and in order to be used, it had to be simple to use. If it were not easy to use, not only would people not use it (which is death for any company in a competitive software market or a company selling a website or app), but productivity would be greatly reduced when the technology is used. For more information on usability and why you should care, check out Usability 101 from Nielsen Norman Group, the consulting firm headed by Dr. Neilsen.
So how do you measure usability? Dr. Neilsen came up with 10 general principles, called the Usability Heuristics. These are what software designers and teams should keep in mind when they are creating a new system, designing a new product, or even updating existing products. It is important to remember that usability isn’t something that is a one-and-done thing, only considered when a system or website is developed and then forgotten. It is something that should be considered with every update and every new addition. It is also something that can be introduced in stages, with improvements made to an existing program or website in a piecemeal fashion to gradually increase usability of the product, rather than trying to do a complete overhaul.
Over the next few weeks, I will be taking a deep dive into these principles. I will discuss why they are important, how they can be measured, and give examples of the good, the bad and sometimes the ugly. By the end, you will have a new appreciation for well-designed systems, and hopefully some new ideas to bring to the table at your workplace. Stay tuned!