What is Usability?

If you want your site to be successful, how usable it is is much more important than what features it has. By that I don’t mean that usability is important, and is something you really need to consider and spend time on. No, I mean it’s completely vital — it should be where the vast majority of your work goes.

There are many different ways of thinking about what usability actually means, but for now we’re going to take one very simple approach: it’s a measure of how easy it is for someone to use your site who isn’t already a domain expert. If you’re building a Freedom of Information site, can someone who has never even heard of Freedom of Information clearly and easily do what you want? If you’re tracking Members of Parliament, what does your site look like to someone who actively hates politics, and knows nothing at all about the Parliamentary system, or what bills are, or hasn’t even the faintest clue what MPs actually spend their time doing? For every page you build, you need to step back, look at it like a first-time visitor, and ask: does this explain what the page is about, why I’m here, what I’m meant to do now, how I can find out more, etc., or does it assume I’m already an expert?

In the vast majority of cases, the primary reason you are building the site in the first place is because the official sites already act like everyone is an expert, and NGO sites assume everyone wants to become an expert. Your goal is to build a site that non-experts can use.

This is far from easy. The chances are you’re already an expert yourself — and if you’re not, then you’ll probably become one in the process of building the site. And once you’re an expert, everything makes sense to you. It’s hard to go back and pretend like everything is foreign to you again.

But it’s OK for this stuff to be hard. Even if you go to the gym every day you’re not going to see much effect if you only spend 5 minutes there doing things that are easy. Usability design is the same: what every page of your site does; how every element of it hangs together; what the things are that someone can do next — these are tough questions. If each of these decisions is easy to make, you’re almost certainly going to have no effect. You’ve simply built a site that’s good for you, but bad for your users.

There are many approaches you can take to do this sort of thing better, and we’ll be talking about lots of them here. But finding out how well you’ve actually done it is remarkably easy. Simply get three people who haven’t used your site before, and who aren’t experts in your area, and persuade them to spend five minutes using your site while you watch. Don’t tell them anything about the site in advance — especially not what the site does (it’s really easy to make that mistake whilst trying to persuade them to help you!) Just ask if they’ll spend a few minutes with this new website you’re working on, and talk out loud about what they’re doing (or trying to do) as they go. You can’t answer any questions they ask — in fact you can’t say a single thing. All you can do is listen, and watch.

If paying attention to how each of those people interacts with your site doesn’t give you thousands of dollars worth of advice you’re either already one of the best usability designers in the world, or you’re doing it wrong.