Usability and User-Centered Design

Usable websites and applications are:

Usable websites and applications are effective, efficient, engaging, error tolerant, and easy to learn.  The five Es of usability are displayed in yellow circles, which are arranged in a pentagonal shape.

Credit: Whitney Quesenbery

The User-Centered Design Process

Diagram showing the user-centered design process. The diagram shows 5 circles, which are themselves arranged in a circle around a person to show that the process is iterative and user centered. The process starts with research, then moves through concept, design, build, launch and measure stages before returning to design again.

Credit: Anthro-Tech

Learn about the basics of usability and user-centered design, and how it can help you improve the quality of your website.

What Is Usability?

Usability measures how easy it is for someone to accomplish a particular task using a particular tool and their satisfaction with the process. Creating usable products is a concept that's been around a lot longer than the Web, and has been used to evaluate everything from consumer electronics to the design of door handles.

The basic idea behind usability is simple: give users what they want, the way they want it, and don't create obstacles.

When sites are usable, they allow our customers to easily:

  • Find what they need
  • Recognize and understand what they find
  • Use the information to answer their questions.

What Is User-Centered Design?

User-centered design (UCD) is a process for developing sites that helps ensure that the sites and applications will build will be usable and useful to our target audiences. UCD places the needs and preferences of our customers—as well as our business goals—at the center of the design process.

It involves performing a series of usability activities with your customers at strategic points during the development cycle, and then modifying your designs based on that feedback to ensure that the final product is on track to meet your customers' needs.

By nature, the UCD process is data driven and iterative, and the usability activities you choose to do for any given project will depend on the problems you are trying to solve, your timeline, and your budget.

The Cost and Return on Investment for User-Centered Design

When weighing the costs of switching to a user-centered design process for your sites and applications, consider this:

  • Unusable products cost less upfront but more down the road. The traditional approach to creating websites focuses heavily on tracking upfront development costs, but neglects to take into account total lifecycle costs for a project. When we don't take the time to understand our customers' goals and mental models when developing a new site or application, we are often rewarded with ineffective products. This leads to increased costs down the road due to:
    • Site or application modifications due to unforeseen or unmet customer requirements
    • Increased time in training, fielding phone calls, and other user support activities
    • Wasted customer time.
  • Unusable products work against your business goals. When you release poorly performing Web products, you might actually sabotage your organization's goals instead of helping to promote them due to:
    • Decreased usage of your products due to customer abandonment
    • Customer perceptions of the organization as unhelpful, bureaucratic, or untrustworthy
    • Failure to change customer behavior because they can't find or understand the information provided.

Measuring the Impact of User-Centered Design

While it is true that adding usability activities to your development cycle may increase the project's up-front costs, the return on investment comes in dramatically decreased maintenance and support costs, and in helping your organization achieve their goals.

So think about a project's total lifecycle cost when considering the value of investing in usability activities. Here are some ways you could measure the impact of creating highly usable Web products over time:

  • Increase in the number of people who use the product
  • Increase in the percentage of customers who successfully accomplish their tasks
  • Increase in customer satisfaction with the product
  • Increase in the number of customers who change their behavior based on your product
  • Increase in customer trust and loyalty
  • Decrease in training and support costs
  • Decrease in development costs for added features and redesigns.

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