It all started with a little girl who was just trying to program a VCR. She couldn’t get it to work.
“I remember it being so, so difficult to do. It just didn’t make sense to me. I think that’s the first time that I really thought about usability, its importance, the difference between clever engineers designing the things and the end user who has to use it, and there being some kind of disjointedness there,” said Lisa Marie Ortega, who was that little girl but is now “Usability Gal.” She runs the successful Manchester-based user experience (UX) agency Keep It Usable.
“When I first started, UX didn’t exist, so it was all about usability. It wasn’t seen as a small scale. It was seen as a major scale where you had to have a master’s degree to even get an interview for usability jobs. It was really highly skilled, highly valued. Now we’ve got UX, so usability now, I think, is seen as a small subset of UX,” Lisa said.
This early experience inspired a passion for usability that has defined her entire career. While a lot has changed since she first entered the field, one thing that remains is Lisa’s undying advocacy for usability.
What is usability exactly?
“I’d describe usability as how easy or difficult something is to use,” Lisa said.
She points to the International Organization for Standardization definition (ISO-9241) for further insight, which defines usability by three measures:
- Effectiveness: Can they complete the task? How do they do it?
- Efficiency: How long did it take to do the task?
- Satisfaction: How did doing the task make people feel?
“They’re the main components of usability in a traditional sense,” Lisa said. “There’s also soft feedback with regards to usability. We do, for example, a lot of research at the start of the process, so defining the hierarchy of content, the information architecture, and which features functionality should be within — for example, an app or a piece of software. All of that comes before usability testing because it comes before you’ve even got a user interface to test.”
Usability is thus, in an ideal world, something that is baked into the design process from the start. By having a better understanding of what the user journey should look like, you can design something better suited to the user’s needs, ultimately making it more usable from the get-go.
Why usability matters
It’s simple. If a product is more usable, then more people will use it, recommend it, and purchase it. Users will have better experiences, and businesses will generate more sales.
“If somebody can’t use something, or they find it difficult to use, they just won’t use it. For businesses, if someone is not using your website, that’s lost sales. If you sell products and people find your product too difficult to use or too frustrating, it’s going to just sit in the corner of the room and not get used, and they probably won’t buy from you again,” Lisa said.
By focusing on usability and making things easy to use, UX designers can build better experiences that their users don’t have to think about.
“I think it’s even more important now than it was in the past. In the past, we used to blame ourselves and we used to stick with poor experiences for longer, whereas now people have a shorter time span for sticking with something that’s difficult, because there are just so many other, easier options,” Lisa said.
“People are even more aware of usability now, so online if you read reviews, people will talk about things being easy to use or not easy to use. There’s more awareness around it as well. People are [starting] to expect it from businesses, that they invest in usability and make it easy for them. It’s a win-win situation for the businesses and the end users.”
So, what does good usability really look like, based on Lisa’s definition that usability measures how easy or difficult something is to use?