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Frequently Asked Questions
on Web Usability

What exactly is "usability" of a Web site?
Usability of a Web site is an extent to which a web site or web application can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction in a specified context of use".  It is a measurable characteristic, that is present to a greater or lesser degree, that describes how effectively a user can interact with a Web site.

Although it is inherently multidimensional, major elements of it are:

  • Effectiveness:  The "accuracy and completeness with which users achieve specified goals". 
  • Efficiency:  The "resources expended in relation to the accuracy and completeness with which users achieve goals".  
  • Satisfaction:  The "freedom of discomfort, and positive attitude to the use of the Web site".

What fields is usability related to?

  • Software engineering
  • Cognitive psychology
  • Experimental psychology
  • Ethnography
  • Systems engineering
  • Human factors
  • Ergonomics
  • Layout and design

Why is usability important?
Usability engineering has proved that web sites of the principles of design have high payoffs :
  • Reduced production costs: the overall development times and costs can be reduced by avoiding over design and reducing the number of changes required late in design.
  • Reduced support costs: Web sites which have quality and is easier to use benefits free publicity from satisfied and retains brand loyalty. Usability engineering helps meeting deadlines easy. User support and subsequent maintenance becomes cheaper. 
  • Reduced costs in use: Web sites better matched to user needs improve productivity and the quality of actions and decisions. Easier to use web sites reduce stress and enable users to handle a wider variety of tasks.  Difficult to use Web sites are time consuming to use, and are not exploited to full advantage, as the user may be discouraged from using advanced features.  In some circumstances, they may never be used.  An ineffective web site may be a major financial liability for the your organization.
  • Improved branding: usage-centred design results in web sites which have a higher quality of use. In today's competitive web market only an easier to use quality web site retain customers. 

At what stage of Web life cycle should I consider usability? 

  • Usability should be considered at every stage of a Web life cycle, just before, after or during launch. This often makes sense as the back-end, content and visual design have all come together in a usable way.
  • Before you start you project it is very essential to have an idea about the characteristics of your users and which features of the product these users would need.
  • Starting early with these considerations safes money and time, because the later implementation of new features or a new user interface means a lot of additional effort.
  • Even if your Web site is staged already you should ask your users for their needs and their attitude to your Web site.
  • Early testing can save development budget by uncovering usability issues before they're deeply embedded. (Every bug is less expensive the earlier it is found!).  

Why should we out source instead of testing in-house?
Objectivity. When you work on and develop a project, you often can't see or find obvious bugs, omissions and errors. Professional testers ramp up and become familiar with a Web site while they're testing so they have a fresh view of the application and elements and interface.

Why not rely on developers to test their own pages and elements?
Again, objectivity, and cross-platform-friendliness. Developers typically develop and test on the same platform while they are working. They also see the same page or element a billion times so if you put it in front of their face with a typo on the third line or an incorrect calculation they could easily miss it.

What is the difference between a usability problem and a bug?
Usability problem: Part of the web design which is hard for a user to understand, will impede the effective use and negatively affect the product.
Bug: A portion of the Web site which does not work as the designers and programmers intended or which is clearly broken.

Is it hard to find usability problems?
Usability problems are often very hard to spot, even for professionals with years of experience. This is true for a number of reasons:

  1. It is really hard to think like a novice when you're an expert.
  2. You often don't have the domain knowledge of your customer.
  3. You become biased toward certain designs as you invest time and energy into them.
  4. Predicting human behavior is something even psychologists can't reliably do.

How is usability different than QA?
Developers rely on QA to test their code, report bugs, and verify bug fixes. Very hip QA people also report potential usability problems to the usability team.

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Last modified on 27 june 2004

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