What Is Usability And Why Does It Matter In App Development?

  • #ApplicationDesign
  • #UsabilityTesting
usability is like utility knife

In today's competitive digital marketplace, apps need to be more than functional to succeed. They need to be highly usable as well. That means not only doing the thing they set out to do but are also easy and pleasant to use for everyone, especially for the people that fit your user persona. Usability is an integral part of the overall user experience. A product with high usability leaves its users feeling satisfied after they complete a task due to how intuitive and frictionless that experience is.

Because there are so many options out there for users to get their tasks done, you need to make sure they actively want to use your app, or they'll look to the competition. In this article, we'll look at what usability means in terms of app development, what makes for good usability, and how you can make your apps and websites more pleasing and satisfying for your users.

Let's dive right in, shall we?

Understanding Usability

Usability is one of the core considerations in app development. It's essentially about how easy and pleasant to use a product is for users and how the development team can increase user ease and enjoyment. A product's usability heavily affects the user experience, which in turn influences the likelihood of users taking to it. The user experience is fundamental to a product's success – unless your product is offering something that users want and no one else offers, it needs a stellar UX. Gone are the days when users had limited options, and today users exercise their choice ruthlessly!

We can think of usability factors as individual tools on a multi-tool. Each tool brings something unique to the whole, and each might attract a different kind of user.

Read: User Experience vs Usability & UI: Learning The Differences

Five Core Qualities Of A Product's Usability

We can break down a product’s usability into five core qualities:

1. Ease Of Learning

No one wants to read a manual to learn how to use an app or website. Users want to be able to do what they have to do quickly, with minimal fuss. Products should be simple and intuitive to use with as shallow a learning curve as possible, with recognizable symbols and images and as little text as possible. If they are necessary, instructions should be concise and given at the time of need rather than all at once.

2. Efficiency Of Use

If there are unnecessary steps for users to go through when they use your app, they’ll look for other options. Having to navigate two menus when one would suffice, scroll through long walls of text, or wait seconds while pages load sends users away in droves. Successful products get the job done quickly, with the minimum number of steps.

3. Memorability

Not all apps get used every day. Memorability refers to how easy it is for users to open the app and perform tasks without having to go through the learning curve again. Ideally, a user should be able to immediately get back to using the app after several weeks or months of not using it.

4. Error Tolerance

We all make mistakes and we don’t like it when small mistakes cost us dearly. A good app should have a high tolerance for users’ mistakes. Think about what happens when users tap in the wrong place or go "back" accidentally.

5. Satisfaction

Whatever the purpose of an app, it should give users a sense of satisfaction when they use it to carry out a task. The previous factors all affect satisfaction – if any of these are off, the user will experience less satisfaction. Sound and haptic feedback also have a role to play and can increase satisfaction considerably when used properly.

Usability As A Component of User Experience (UX)

User experience (UX) is fundamental to good app design. UX refers to the way users interact with a particular product and how they feel in doing so. If your app doesn't make users feel good, it is likely to fail.

Think about some of the apps that you choose to use every day. Unless they perform a function that no other app caters to, you probably use them because you like them. Even for purely functional tasks like buying train tickets, if you have a choice of apps, you use the one that's most pleasant – the app with the great UX.

Now think about those apps that you tried a couple of times and then abandoned. There was probably something about them that you didn't like – maybe the color scheme hurt your eyes or maybe the text was too small. Maybe there were too many hoops to jump through to perform a task. Whatever the reason, the UX was bad and you quit using the app.

The terms usability and UX are sometimes used interchangeably, but they're not really the same thing. A product's UX is affected by many factors with usability being one of the most important. Usability is more about the functional aspects of the product – how easy and efficient it is to use. UX is the overall experience that the users have when using the product. Good usability increases the likelihood of a positive user experience.

If we think about the experience of buying something from a physical store, usability would be things like how easy it is to get through the door, how the store is laid out, and whether the cashiers know how to do their jobs. At the same time, the user experience would be all the elements of usability, combined with other aspects like the atmosphere in the store and the demeanor of the cashier.

You can read more about the differences between UX and usability.

Relationship Between Good Usability And Accessibility

Accessibility goes hand in hand with usability as one of the core components of UX. In app development, it's crucial to remember that we all have different accessibility needs. What works fine for one person might be completely inaccessible for another and designing for an imaginary "average" user with no accessibility issues is designing to fail. Inclusive design puts every type of user at its heart.

Accessibility needs to be at the heart of the development process from the beginning or it risks being seen as "bolted on." It's helpful to remember that designing inclusively with the needs of many different types of users in mind improves the experience for everyone. Accessibility means taking a multi-sensory approach and thinking outside of the text-and-tap interface box. Using sound intelligently, incorporating gesture support and voice commands, and providing plenty of options for users, makes for a better experience that improves usability and accessibility.

The US government introduced a set of regulations called Section 508 to improve digital accessibility and tackle discrimination. So not only is building inclusively the right thing to do, but it's also the legal thing to do. Things to think about when designing your product include:

  • Don't use single elements like color alone for navigation
  • The more possible types of input, the better – voice commands, text, gestures, devices.
  • Transcripts for all audio content opens it up to new audiences.

Google Assistant is a great example of a product built with accessibility at its heart. Users don't need to touch their phones and can use voice commands for a variety of tasks. Users can also type and use gestures with plenty of options for customization.

Importance Of Usability From The Developer’s Perspective

When we talk about usability we're usually looking at it from the users' point of view. But, it's also helpful for developers to keep usability in mind at all times. Suppose the aim of app development is to produce products that function well and users actively want to use. In that case, the aim of the developer should be to understand what the users expect in terms of their experience and constantly strive to learn and improve based on this understanding.

Technology is developing extremely quickly, and user interfaces too. At the same time, norms around the design and behavior of apps and websites have developed and become codified. Modern Internet users expect certain behavior from certain elements – think the hamburger menu or "play" button (triangular play symbol). Products that deviate from these norms tend to annoy users (unless they're offering an alternative that users like better). So, developers and designers need to keep on top of these areas and use usability testing to understand the changing patterns of user behavior and expectations.

How To Ensure Your Design's Usability

So, now you understand how important usability is in app development, we’ll move on to looking at how you can make sure that your apps are usable. You need to keep usability in mind from the get-go and keep it there throughout the development process. Making a thorough plan is the best way to achieve this.

1. Define Your Goals

Without clearly defined goals, it’s easy to get sidetracked. Defined goals give the team something concrete to focus on and work towards. At the very beginning of the development process, identify the goals of your project. Try to be as specific as possible – keep goals simple and break complex issues down into several parts. Ask yourself questions like:

  • Who will use this product?
  • Why will they use it and what will they hope to achieve?
  • What factors (environmental, situational, temporary, or permanent) might affect their ability to use the product?
  • What obstacles might users face when trying to use the product?
  • How can we make this product easier for everyone to use?

2. Conduct Extensive User Research

Before spending time and money on a project, it's important to understand what your potential users are looking for. You might think you have a great idea, but if no one else sees the value in it and wants to use it, it's unlikely to be successful. User research is invaluable in determining whether there is a market for your product and how you can ensure that the product meets users’ needs and exceeds their expectations.

Similar to user testing, user research allows you to understand the needs, wants, and preferences of your users. Unlike testing though, research can happen before the product is in place. User research helps to gain an understanding of:

  • Different user perspectives
  • Existing user pain points
  • Overlooked growth areas
  • Untapped potential markets

You can learn more about user research during the design process.

3. Carry Out Testing

“Test early and often” is a motto to live by in app development. The value of testing cannot be overstated – it's vitally important. Testing at every stage of the process is the key to avoiding potentially project-killing problems, allowing you to identify issues when they can easily be fixed rather than later in the process when alterations become more difficult.

Developers and designers are naturally close to their projects, which means sometimes we don’t see important details. Since we know exactly how the app works, it’s easy to miss big usability issues. Usability testing allows us to see the product from the user's point of view and improve usability at every step of the process. It’s vital to test the product with users that reflect your personas to ensure usability, accessibility, and a stellar user experience.

You can read more about usability testing.

Different Evaluation Methods For Different Testing Situations

There are many kinds of usability testing, suitable for various situations. For best results, use a combination of methods regularly, with as wide a variety of participants as possible over several rounds. Let’s look at a few commonly used types of test.

Baseline Usability Testing

Baseline usability testing is used for existing products where improvements are going to be made before the redesign takes place.

  • Useful for existing apps or sites where changes are to be made
  • Participants identify existing problems/pain points
  • Participants work independently to complete a task and are observed or fill out a questionnaire at the end of the test
  • Changes are designed based on testing results
Focus Groups

Focus groups are moderated discussions or interviews with a small number of participants used to ideate around user goals, attitudes, and expectations.

  • Helpful to establish focus areas for further testing
  • Groups usually contain five to ten participants
  • Informal, participant-led discussions, often filmed
  • Usually in person, can be online
Card Sort Testing

Card sort testing is used to evaluate the information architecture (IA) of a product – how the information within the product is organized.

  • Used to design or improve the structure of the app or website
  • Helpful to understand how users expect the product to be organized
  • Participants work independently to sort “cards” (topics or concepts) into groups
  • Open sorting allows participants to sort cards however they like, into groups that make sense to them
  • Closed sorting involves participants sorting cards into predefined groups
Wireframe Testing

Wireframe testing involves testing the basic layout and design of several different versions of a product to understand how users interact with it and navigate.

  • Useful to see how users navigate around the product
  • Great for identifying basic usability issues
  • Good for testing several layouts at once
  • Participants work independently observed or recorded
First Click Testing

First click testing looks at what users click (or tap) first to achieve a particular task.

  • Used to make sure users go down the right path to achieve a goal
  • Helpful for understanding distracting elements
  • Participants work independently observed by tester or recorded
Usability Testing

Usability testing looks at the overall way users interact with a product and is very flexible.

  • Participants work independently observed or recorded
  • Used to understand what users enjoy/dislike about a product
  • Useful for finding errors in the user interface  
  • Lots of testing options
Satisfaction Surveys

Satisfaction surveys give a quick snapshot of how the user feels about the product at any one time.

  • Good for understanding how successful the product is outside of a testing environment
  • Used before, during, and after changes are made to a product
  • Participants fill out surveys independently, unobserved

4. Integrate Usability (Always) Throughout The UX Design Process

Usability is not a “one and done” thing. Because it’s a key aspect of the UX, usability should be embedded into each part of the development process. Research and early testing with usability in mind lay a strong foundation, then a continued focus on usability helps to ensure that the product will be the best it can be. 

Usability is iterative – each layer builds on the one before it to create a finely-honed product that has been shaped by real user experience. Every proposed change should be assessed for usability before, during, and after implementation.

You can read more about iterative design here.

5. Working With Testing Data

After a round of testing is complete, it's time to analyze the results and decide on further action. Use the data to determine whether the product is achieving its core goals and identify any parts that need changes. There are plenty of tools to help you dig into the data to understand patterns and identify problems and testing software and online testing platforms have these tools built-in.

Once the data has been analyzed and problem areas identified, you can draw up a plan for proposed changes. It's vital to pay attention to what the data tells you. If test participants tell you there is a usability issue, it's much better to tackle it as early as possible. You can't ignore the problem – it won't just go away. 

After the changes have been made, another round of testing established whether they had had the desired effect. If there are still problems, the testing and tweaking process carries on until the usability issue is resolved. Over time, the product becomes increasingly usable and honed to its users' needs.

Tips To Ensure Optimum Usability Of Your Design

So, how can we make our products more usable and attractive to users? There are lots of resources out there to learn more about how to optimize the usability of your product, but here are some of our top tips to get started:

  • Consider and test the product with as many different user demographics as possible within your target audience.
  • Prioritize accessibility from the beginning of the design process.
  • Test changes regularly and act upon the results.
  • Provide simple navigation and search functions that adhere to user expectations.
  • Make sure the app or website flows cohesively from one action or section to the next.
  • Keep instructions simple and jargon-free and don’t bombard users with too much information at once.
  • Use consistent styles and branding throughout.
  • Utilize sound and gesture commands intelligently.

Incorporate Good Usability Into Your UX To Keep Users Engaged

Usability is a vital component of UX design and can make or break a product. Users have so many choices of products that products with poor usability will hurt user engagement. High-quality usability will ensure that a wide variety of people will find your product the most appealing option. So, it’s crucial to keep usability in mind at all times during the development process and after the product’s release.

A product with high usability is a product that people want to use. Whatever the purpose of the product, users will return again and again if they have a smooth, satisfying experience that not only meets their needs, but exceeds their expectations.

Want help with UX design for your product that incorporates usability? Engage with us.

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Abdul Suleiman
Abdul SuleimanChief Experience Officer
Abdul Suleiman

Abdul has helped over 40 Fortune 500 companies make informed user-centered design decisions through evidence-based user research and UX best practices. As an Adjunct Professor, Abdul has taught in DePaul University’s graduate UX programs and for nine other universities.

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