What the heck is web usability, anyway?

Without Jakob Nielsen’s pioneering work on usability and his undying passion for it, USAGE might not even be around, today. Ok. Probably, we wouldn’t be around at all. So, it makes sense to us that our first blog post on the brand, spankin’ new USAGE website be dedicated to Jakob Nielsen’s thoughts on usability and usability heuristics.

In Jessica Miller’s excellent post, How Jakob Nielsen Changed the Face of Usability from the Usability Lab website she notes, quite aptly, that:

“Chris Kringle is the father of Christmas,
Abner Doubleday is the father of Baseball,
Enzo Ferrari is the father of the Supercar.
Jakob Nielsen is the father of Usability.”

It’s true, and it’s pretty much that simple. Jakob Nielsen graduated with a degree in human-computer interaction in the early 1980s, a time very different from now with regard to said human-computer interaction. Personal computers existed, but really this was the period of the mainframe supercomputers that took up entire floors of massive facilities, a fact that makes Nielsen’s ability to forecast what was to come quite exceptional, even if that vision is overshadowed by so much of his other pioneering work; particularly the work he’s done with his Nielsen Norman Group, where they’ve, almost, single-handedly evangelized and spread the gospel of usability and user experience in the age of personal computing, so it’s with that that we dig into one of our favorite areas, the definition of usability and usability heuristics, or as Jakob Nielsen put it, “broad rules of thumb”… rather than specific usability guidelines…

Jakob Nielsen defines the 5 components of usability, thusly:

  • Learnability: How easy is it for users to accomplish basic tasks the first time they encounter the design?
  • Efficiency: Once users have learned the design, how quickly can they perform tasks?
  • Memorability: When users return to the design after a period of not using it, how easily can they reestablish proficiency?
  • Errors: How many errors do users make, how severe are these errors, and how easily can they recover from the errors?
  • Satisfaction: How pleasant is it to use the design?

He goes further to talk about those ‘broad rules of thumb,’ or the usability heuristics, as:

Visibility of system status
The system should always keep users informed about what is going on, through appropriate feedback within reasonable time.

Match between system and the real world
The system should speak the users’ language, with words, phrases and concepts familiar to the user, rather than system-oriented terms. Follow real-world conventions, making information appear in a natural and logical order.

User control and freedom
Users often choose system functions by mistake and will need a clearly marked “emergency exit” to leave the unwanted state without having to go through an extended dialogue. Support undo and redo.

Consistency and standards
Users should not have to wonder whether different words, situations, or actions mean the same thing.

Error prevention
Even better than good error messages is a careful design which prevents a problem from occurring in the first place. Either eliminate error-prone conditions or check for them and present users with a confirmation option before they commit to the action.

Recognition rather than recall
Minimize the user’s memory load by making objects, actions, and options visible. The user should not have to remember information from one part of the dialogue to another. Instructions for use of the system should be visible or easily retrievable whenever appropriate.

Flexibility and efficiency of use
Accelerators — unseen by the novice user — may often speed up the interaction for the expert user such that the system can cater to both inexperienced and experienced users. Allow users to tailor frequent actions.

Aesthetic and minimalist design
Dialogues should not contain information which is irrelevant or rarely needed. Every extra unit of information in a dialogue competes with the relevant units of information and diminishes their relative visibility.

Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors
Error messages should be expressed in plain language (no codes), precisely indicate the problem, and constructively suggest a solution.

Help and documentation
Even though it is better if the system can be used without documentation, it may be necessary to provide help and documentation. Any such information should be easy to search, focused on the user’s task, list concrete steps to be carried out, and not be too large.

These 5 components of usability and these 10 usability heuristics create the bedrock for what we do here at USAGE and how we evaluate the sites that we work on. This is high level, of course, and there are many considerations when considering various platforms and how user-friendly something is, along with many other specific considerations, but at the core of it Jakob Nielsen’s work is a fundamental ingredient in the secret sauce here at USAGE; it’s this knowledge that we’ve used with customer’s around Lansing, Michigan and throughout the world for over 15 years.

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