Usability beyond the web

Usability guru, Paula Hay, demystifies usability and shows its relevance beyond the web.

For Christmas last year my dad decided to give my grandfather a truly useful gift: his first mobile phone. It didn’t go over so well — Gramps could not decipher the phone’s symbolic markings and had trouble managing its tiny buttons. Twenty frustrated minutes later he declared this newfangled doohicky a piece of garbage. Who would waste their money on such a thing?

I couldn’t help but appreciate my grandfather’s astute assessment. He was absolutely correct. The phone was poorly designed and would not likely see sales above a certain level because of it — the phone had serious usability issues.

Usability has become an important competitive factor in business. The subject usually crops up in the context of website design, but has wide application beyond the web and a proven track record of profitability.

What is usability?

Ironically enough, definitions of usability tend to be saturated in geek-speak so I’ll offer my own: Usability is the ease with which a person can operate a tool to accomplish a desired goal. It is key in creating better products and services, regardless of the nature of a given business. The product or service that helps customers accomplish their desired goals most easily inspires repeat business, brand loyalty and brand advocacy.

Many companies have put usability principles to work so successfully that they’ve risen to a dominant position in their industries. A familiar example from the web is Google — its nearly empty home page seemed strange when it first launched in 1998, but this design was calculated to take advantage of a specific trend. Web users were shifting away from link-aggregating portals like Yahoo and toward a heavier reliance on searching. Google made web searching extremely easy, and from this simple yet powerful beginning has grown into a company with assets totaling over $25 billion — in fewer than 10 years.

But usability is certainly not limited to the web. Jenny Craig, Inc. rose to the top of the diet industry by making the onerous project of weight loss easier to manage; Great Call, Inc., a new mobile phone service provider (under the brand name "Jitterbug"), is having immediate success with its line of ultra-simple phones; and closer to home, StartupNation has become one of the top brands among entrepreneurs due to its straightforward, step-by-step advice for what are often overwhelming and confusing business processes.

Putting usability to work

Designing for usability — officially known as "usability engineering" — doesn’t have to be difficult or expensive, but it does require thoughtful attention to a few specific factors.

Define the target users. Target user data will overlap with the "target market" section of a business plan, but includes some additional information:

  • Psychographics — the target users’ interests, attitudes and opinions; their lifestyle choices; their religious inclinations; their political affiliations. Psychographic data are important in usability design to understand, for example, whether a particular color or symbol may communicate something unintended, making a product or service more difficult to use.
  • Environment — where will the product or service be used — in someone’s home or at work? During daylight hours or at night? Will there be distractions to overcome, and how severe are these?
  • Information needs — what information does the user need in order to use the product or service, and what is the best way to provide it? Can the product or service be designed in such a way as to reduce the need to rely on reference materials?

Define the mission. This is simply the desired goal, or goals, which the product or service will help a user achieve. Write down this mission and place it somewhere highly visible. One of the main deterrents to usable design is "mission creep" — the temptation to add more and more goals, or more and more target users, until the original user goal is diluted or lost altogether. Usability design works best when the mission remains focused.

Competitive analysis. Usability guru Jakob Nielsen points out in his book Usability Engineering that competitors’ products and services can serve as prototypes for new products and services under development. In what ways can competitors’ products or services be improved upon? Will parroting aspects of a competitor’s design result in mission creep or add information requirements?

Functional analysis. A functional analysis goes beyond asking what a user is trying to accomplish and asks why he or she is trying to accomplish it. Understanding users’ motivations can reveal shortcuts, simplifications, and even entirely new ways to achieve the mission.

Task analysis & task modeling. A task analysis is a list of the tasks and sub-tasks required to get a product or service to do what it is intended to do. For example, the task "turn on television" may include the subtasks "find remote," "press ‘TV’ button," "press ‘on’ button," "adjust volume." A task model is a flowchart of these tasks and sub-tasks. Task analysis and task modeling reveal a product or service’s complexity level and help visualize where simplifications can be made — for example, some subtasks may be eliminated altogether by combining them or because they are redundant.

Usability testing

Usability testing generally occurs at the prototype stage, but can be extremely helpful any time design changes are in order. The basic concept of usability testing is very straightforward: how much difficulty do users have using a product?

A usability test consists of a list of tasks which test subjects must perform with the product. A usability test for a vacuum cleaner, for example, may consist of the assigned tasks "turn the vacuum cleaner on," "replace the bag," and "adjust the height level." Users are given the task list, the product, and whatever documentation may go with it, and they’re turned loose to do their thing. That’s all there is to it — even expensive and elaborate usability testing procedures are based on this foundation.

As users go through the tasks, keep careful notes as to which require use of the documentation, which prompt questions, and which are easy for the tester to manage. It is also helpful to have the testers fill out a questionnaire about their experience with the product at the conclusion of the test. This can shed light on their thought processes and reveal additional very useful information.

This kind of "directed test drive" often turns up unexpected and unforeseen hiccups in a product design and can save an enormous amount of lost revenue.


According to, "The rule of thumb in many usability-aware organizations is that the cost-benefit ratio for usability is $1:$10-$100. Once a system is in development, correcting a problem costs 10 times as much as fixing the same problem in design. If the system has been released, it costs 100 times as much relative to fixing in design."

Add to this the tremendous success many companies have experienced with products and services developed for usability, in both sales and reputation, and it is easy to understand how usability can confer such a high level of competitive advantage for nearly any entrepreneurial project, no matter how large or small.

For more information about the business case for usability, please see the Commercial Advantages page at To get started with usability, visit the Basics of Usability page, also at For a more in depth treatment of the subject, you can’t go wrong with The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman and Usability Engineering by Jakob Nielsen.

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