Wednesday, May 07, 2008

"Usability? What's that?"

Whenever someone asks me what I do for a living, I have a very quick internal debate. Do I give a generic answer that will satisfy them and help us move onto the next topic of conversation or do I really tell them what I do which will almost inevitably lead to the question in the title of this post? If I'm in a talky mood, I'll usually do the latter. So what is it I do? I do Usability for web sites and web applications. And to answer the inevitable question, here's what usability is. It's making things usable.

Now, why is that important? Well, the sad fact of the matter is that most stuff done on the web isn't as usable as it could be. It's like I used to tell my kids when I was teaching, "You can have the best idea for a paper in the world, but if it's unreadable from a grammar or stylistic standpoint, it doesn't matter." Same thing with site and application design. It can be a great idea for a site, but if people can't use it, then they aren't going to use it.

So, why is usability important? In a company like the one I work in, time is money. You want your personnel doing things that will bring income to the company, billable hours, that kind of thing. So the longer it takes a person to do something, the less time they are working for the clients. And so, let's say that a company has 20,000 employees and 15,000 of them have billable hours. If you can save them 10 seconds on a task they do every week, you've just saved the firm 40 hours in a week, one full person, 2,080 hours a year. Even for sites where the user is going to be purchasing, rather that working, studies show that the faster you can help that user make a choice, the more likely they are to purchase.

But not only that, having a site or application that user can "enjoy" using gives a more favorable impression of the brand associated with that site. And it goes beyond look. If a site looks great, but you can't find what you want to find to do what you want to do, you're not going to have a favorable impression of the site or the brand associated with it.

Ok, so that's what usability is. Next week, how do we go about accomplishing that? What do we do on a regular basis to make something usable?


Jennifer Thompson said...

I have the internal debate too. I usually say I'm in medical research. If they keep asking and I say I'm a statistician, I usually get either "Wow, you must be smart!" (awkward) or "Oh. I hated statistics."

I think I speak for all web users when I say I'm glad there are people with your job. :)

Jim Voorhies said...

I can hardly wait for next week. This is so exciting!

Jennifer, you should try telling people you have a masters in urban economics. People have no clue that even exists.

Sadly, neither do employers, which is why I work with Phil. :)

C D said...

When I did my one year multi-media class in the UK, one of the required classes was usability. The class was crap, but the idea has stuck with me, and badly-designed user-unfriendly websites are one of my pet peeves.

I too am glad you do what you do!

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