What is Usability in Web Design?

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Usability. User interface. User experience. I’m sure you’ve encountered these terms in web design quite a lot lately. What do they mean and how are they different from each other?

“Usability” is the user-friendliness of a website determined by how easily visitors are able to interact with it or accomplish what they intended to do. “User Interface” is the space where visitors interact with a website. On the other hand, “User Experience” refers to the quality of the interaction visitors get when navigating through a site. This term was coined by Don Norman in 1993 for his group at Apple Computer. These three go hand in hand to achieve user satisfaction. A well-designed user interface leads to superior usability and ultimately results in positive user experiences.

This article will focus on usability in web design: when it began, its elements and how it can be applied to create positive user experiences.

Usability Through the Years

History is filled with many endeavours to make certain activities easier, more accessible, more efficient in several aspects (time, energy and money, for example), less prone to error, and more effective. As far back as the 1900s, these efforts have been evident in the fields of Ergonomics and Human Factors. These branches of science study human competence, constraints and comfort in relation to how tools, machines, systems and products are designed for efficient and safe use. Usability finds its roots in these two disciplines.

Applications of ergonomics and human factors have proven very advantageous particularly in World War I while training soldiers to assemble and disassemble weapons under poor lighting, and in World War II in the area of aviation when a more intuitive layout of the aeroplane cockpit was introduced in order to reduce pilot error.

Towards the 1990s, ergonomics branched out into cognitive interface design that focuses on how appropriate the application of a product is to the cognitive capabilities of users. It employs insights on human perception, mental processing and memory, and serves as a guideline to ensure good usability.

In 1998, usability has been recognised as an ISO standard to appraise how effective, efficient and satisfied a user is when using the product. It is used to determine how well a product improves the user’s performance while utilising the product through methods of testing, assessment, evaluation, feedback and validation.

Fast forward to today, usability has become a widely used measure for evaluating modern products, processes and systems, including websites.

Elements of Usability and Their Applications in Web Design

Clear Navigation

Usability stems from clarity. You cannot use something to its full potential if you don’t have a firm grasp of what it is or how it works. This especially applies to website navigation.

Web navigation is the process of exploring a website—how you scroll through a screen, interact with different site elements and buttons or travel from one page to another.

Web design has a lot to do with navigation in that the organisation of the menu items and arrangement of elements throughout your website dictates how users will browse your domain. Think of your layout as a roadmap and the information your visitors need is the destination. They would want to arrive at their objective with the least number of steps and in the shortest time possible, lest they hop on to the next site with clearer navigation.

An intuitively-designed website has a simple layout and a clear call to action. It is also conventional and consistent, taking into consideration what users are already familiar with in order to facilitate a better and instinctive flow scheme. As a result, your visitors will be able to browse your site more easily, achieve what they came for or what you want them to do, and are more likely to return.

Legibility that Encourages Engagement

“Content is King,” wrote Bill Gates in his 1996 essay pertaining to how he foresaw the internet as a content marketplace. In contemporary times, people have taken this concept a step further by saying, “Content is King, but Engagement is Queen.”

Yes, the quality of your website content is important for marketing and search engine optimisation, but if your visitors find it difficult to read, then it would have lost part of its value. On the other hand, legible content encourages user engagement, which is indicative of usability.

Legibility is achieved through proper presentation of text: correct usage of fonts (appropriate styles and sizes), colour contrast and information hierarchy. These factors direct your users to what they want to find and facilitate scannability.

Performance

One of the variables that influences usability is the performance of your website. Site performance is measured by the speed at which it loads—how long it takes to make your content available to visitors and how quickly they can navigate through its pages. As a rule of thumb, loading time should not exceed two seconds.

You can improve the speed of your website by having it hosted on a server that delivers optimal load time. A simple, clutter-free layout containing only the necessary elements will also help enhance your website performance.

Responsiveness

Another feature that lends to usability is how your website appears and functions on different screen sizes. Majority of users these days browse the internet via their mobile devices instead of desktop computers, so your website should be able to adapt and accommodate this shift in how they browse online.

Designing a flexible web layout that automatically adjusts to various screen sizes favours responsiveness and usability.

Credibility

The internet has evolved so much in the past years to become what it is today. It has entered the era of social media, online dating and e-commerce. Websites that are platforms for these enterprises require personal information, payment and trust, above all else.

Some websites ask visitors to enter their email address or personal information before gaining complete access to all its features. Social media and other similar platforms require individuals to create user profiles in order to participate. E-commerce sites request for payment and other necessary customer data to complete purchases.

If your site does not appear to be trustworthy, visitors will decline to supply you with their information or make a transaction. Not being able to accomplish what they came to do on your website reflects poor usability.

To establish website credibility, ensure that your design points them to where they can find complete and correct information about your company, your goods and services, and the processes required to carry out their desired transaction. For example, an updated About Us section, accessible contact information, accurate product details, truthful customer testimonials and a clear payment method will make them more comfortable about using your website.

Usability Evolves

Usability in web design doesn’t happen in a snap, nor is it a one-time event. Its history is proof that it takes years to achieve and master, with many iterations, trials and errors. It requires in-depth research, regular testing and consistent fine-tuning in order to improve. This is not to say that usability is unattainable; it just goes to show that technology is dynamic, so web designs, too, must evolve to keep up with the changing times.

Now that you know what usability is all about, dig a little deeper and find out what user interface and user experience means in web design.