Usability: What It Means & How to Get There


Meghan Horvath

November 21, 2018

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Chime in with the words user experience and user-centered design and cue the eye rolls for sounding like a broken record. Usability, however, is a tune that hasn’t been played so often. A quick glance may tell you what it means quite literally, but what does it really represent in the context of customer experience?

Let’s dive in, unearthing just how this sought-after concept is defined and shed light on how to achieve it for your product.

At a glance definition

You guessed it, usability is essential. When it comes to shaping customer experiences, it follows logic that your product must at least be usable. Usability is therefore essential to creating the best experiences possible for your users.

Usability can be defined in many ways, but it comes down to:

  1. the science of making technology work for people

  2. how easily people can complete a certain task

  3. is user-friendly

In today’s market, understanding how to use a product should be effortless. Making tasks easier to complete rather than causing more confusion is the goal. If users experience the slightest difficulty, you can bet they won’t give it the time of day to figure it out.

Only when your product is usable, is it desirable. Think about it from your own experience, how annoying would it be to see this screen where there is no option to cancel or exit, only to continue?


Thought so. The typical customer wants–no, expects, a seamless process.

The main elements

Taking a closer look, usability can be broken into five main components: learnability, efficiency, memorability, errors and satisfaction.

  1. Learnability

Usability depends on learnability. It’s what ensures users aren’t bogged down simply by trying to understand how to use your product or service. It describes how easy it is for people to complete basic tasks without any prior knowledge or experience with your design

As Forrester’s Kelly Price explains,

Most products are designed with the best of intentions but run into problems when the experience we think we’re creating doesn’t actually translate to the user.

A great way to ensure learnability is to think of language. To understand someone, it helps to speak the same language. The same goes for your users and your system. Symbols, how information is presented, must come naturally to the user’s mind.


The Dutch company Tikkie, for instance, makes asking for payment requests easier than ever. With straightforward CTAs, a user-friendly interface and clear notifications, you can easily navigate the app and fast, regardless of whether it’s your first or your 10th time using the platform.

Imagine your users go stretches of time without using your product or service. How easily they can get back up to speed is another key differentiator that will keep them coming back to you rather than avoiding or searching elsewhere for a more simple solution.

2. Efficiency

As in most areas, efficiency is valued. Why spend two hours trying to complete a task when it could take 20 minutes? This is what makes efficiency a key aspect of usability.

Think of Wear OS by Google.

For its third major release, Google swapped around navigation for an overall faster watch since, in reality, people should not have to look at their watch for longer than 5 seconds at a time. Without this speed, what’s to distinguish the experience from simply checking your smartphone?


This meant that whereas a horizontal swipe previously changed watch faces, swiping left and right now directly brought up Google Fit and Assistant. The watch became not only more efficient than the previous model, but also more efficient than competing devices. With efficiency, Google revolutionized the way we receive notifications.

As reviews editor at Engadget, Cherlynn Low explains,

It takes some getting used to, but the new placement of everything feels intuitive, and most things I need are just one or two taps away.

Once your customers understand how to use your product, they can do so seamlessly down the road. Encountering little frustration along the way is what boosts your product’s usability and separates great customer experiences from the rest.

3. Memorability

The best brands, and the worst, stay ingrained in customers’ minds. Opting for memorability in the positive sense is the goal of all organizations, but how can this be achieved? There are many elements, but standout customer support, seamless user flows and an aesthetically pleasing design are just a few ways your product has a shot at remaining glued in people’s heads.

Think of Nike. Their slogan, design and overall way they position themselves is memorable– powerful, punchy and to the point.


On top of creating simply great products, they’ve created a culture of loyal customers thanks to a bold vision, a clear interface on their popular app and on desktop, as well as frequent ‘friends & family’ sales for Nike employees.

Memorability doesn’t have to be hard. You can become the best in class and people’s “go-to” by listening to what people want. By gathering feedback, you can avoid missteps and optimize by shaping your product based on the perspective of the ones actually using it.

4. Errors

We’ve all experienced error messages that are unclear or lacking in useful information. You were likely frustrated and began Googling for the answer to a hard to describe situation. Soon enough you’re five web forums deep, reading up on how others may or may not have solved the issue.

With ‘usability’ involved, these types of vague error messages:


should not be the case.

There are numerous behavioral usability measurements, i.e. heatmaps, eye-tracking, and scroll patterns, to prevent these mishaps and provide a more granular view of user experiences. These are especially effective when compared to what self-reported user behavior data may reveal.

As Jakob Nielsen puts it:

Watching users try to accomplish tasks on your site is the most effective and efficient way to uncover usability problems.

While usability testing may sound intensive, in truth it doesn’t require too many resources. Forget the days of elaborate usability labs and full UX teams running tests all day, and say hello to the 21st century and with it, remote usability testing software.

There are plenty of brands specializing in this software and each in their own way, as highlighted by Forrester:


With Usabilla’s VoC solution, for instance, your users can visually reference any part of the screen they are looking at when they give you feedback. That means you get very specific feedback, in context, in the moment.

5. Satisfaction

When people visit and leave your site, they should experience as little trouble as possible achieving their goals. The last thing they want to see is a complex user interface, cumbersome workflows and, especially, technical issues.

Think of the interactions you have each day. Each person we come across is unique, sure, yet some people just stand out. This is either because of a certain quality, a positive feeling they radiate, or their genuine attention to you and what you have to say, and these people are well liked because of it.

Why then should brands be different? Whether with people or with digital channels and products, interactions should be easy and leave both sides feeling content.

When it comes to brands who successfully provide a satisfying experience, Uber comes to mind.


By telling customers up front how much they can expect to pay for their ride, customers are bound to be satisfied. They got their ride home and they paid exactly what they anticipated. No surprises.

Easy to interact with, causing little frustration and leaving customers with a sense of satisfaction in having accomplishment in what they set out to do in the first place–these are the elements you want from your product.

The next steps

From learnability, efficiency and memorability to eliminating errors and boosting satisfaction, usability may add time upfront, but you will save in the long term. Because training is what is necessary when your software isn’t self-explanatory, be self-explanatory.

As UX expert Jared Spool put it:

The opposite of usability is training.

With usability at the heart of your digital products, support and development teams don’t need to backtrack to correct issues that could have been avoided in the first place. Resources will be better allocated, and you’ll save your organization time, create better products and see happier customers who are more likely to stick with your brand for good.

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