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What Is Usability? What is UX?

July 12, 2021

Usability is the process of making it easier for the people visiting your website to use your website. Usability is concerned with efficiency and effectiveness; a usable website is one where people (users) can accomplish tasks effortlessly.

Often used interchangeably, usability isn’t the same thing as user experience (UX). A great UX will also be usable but UX and usability focus on different areas. UX is about the entire experience users have when interacting with your company via your website; UX looks at more than if people can click links or submit forms, but rather if people are pleased with the experience they had.

Think of it this way: the users currently interacting with your website are having some kind of experience. That experience might be good or bad, pleasant or frustrating, satisfying or unsatisfying. Part of what makes that experience good, pleasant, and satisfying (or the reverse), is that the website isn’t usable. But the website might be perfectly usable, though still deliver a bad UX because the website simply doesn’t give people what they’d like. For example, a visitor could effortlessly find the product on an ecommerce website (the website was usable) but the product was out of stock, which created a bad experience.

While we are defining terms, it is important to understand that usability is not the same as design (how things look) or functionality (how things work), though usability is heavily related to both of those concepts. By changing the design or altering the functionality, you can make the website more usable.

Similarly, UX isn’t the same as design or functionality either. UX looks across your whole organization, from design to development to product delivery to marketing to sales to customer support, to see what type of interaction people are having with your organization and how that interaction can be improved.

What is the Goal of Usability?

Usability is centered around specific tasks on your website and making sure people can complete those tasks. You want people to read your articles, watch your videos, order your products, subscribe to your newsletter, use your search feature, and more. As you look at each task people could complete on your website, you need to determine if all the users who want to do those things are able to do those things? If not, why not?

For each of these tasks, you want to step through and understand what you could change so that more users are able to complete the task. You are looking for obstacles that prevent users from doing something. Are there errors on your website that interrupt the task completion process? Can you reduce your checkout process from five steps to three steps? Is the design broken on particular screen sizes?

Of course, you can’t always fix every obstacle. Sometimes those obstacles are baked deep into the underlying technology and can’t be removed without rebuilding the entire website (which is often not feasible). In other cases, those obstacles are added purposefully for legitimate business reasons. For example, a form might force people to sign up and pay before reading an article. This is an interruption, and that form will make the website harder to use. However, if that form drives significant revenue for the company, that usability impairment might be worthwhile. What this means is that one goal of improving a website’s usability is balancing usability against all the other factors.

What is Goal of UX Improvements?

With UX, the primary goal is to reduce the pain involved within that experience. No matter how amazing your product or service, and no matter how much people want your products or services, people will not work with your organization if it is too hard to do so. If your social profile is anemic, people will lose trust in your company; lack of trust is another type of pain that can degrade your UX. If your purchase process doesn’t properly explain the shipping process or explain it in a way users like, there is too much pain, and you probably won’t get that many orders.

To help reduce the pain, you also want to see where you can better meet user expectations. Some of these expectations are stated plainly by your users. For instance, customers tell you which products they want to buy, so you make more of those products available. However, the expectations that you really need to meet and the expectations that make the difference between good and great user experiences are the implied expectations. For instance, people say they’d like to read the text, but the metrics indicate that people actually prefer watching videos. The more you meet all expectations, the less painful the overall experience will be.

How Do UX & Usability Relate to SEO?

So far in this article, I’ve equated users and people. While that is often the case, it isn’t always the case because search engine robots (and other automated services) are also using our website. Just like humans, those bots have some type of experience when interacting with our website and we want to make that experience as good as possible; we want Googlebot to positively evaluate our website, understand our website’s content is trustworthy and written by experts. Just like with humans, we want bots to be able to easily use our website, completing the tasks they are trying to complete. For bots, the task involves loading pages and files.

However, along with making the experience better for bots as they use our website, Google does have specific usability and UX guidelines they want websites to follow because their research suggests these factors make for a better experience and a website that is easier to use. So, as their bots crawl through and process the website’s content, these guidelines are factored into your website’s overall evaluation. These guidelines include mobile-friendliness, page speed (Core Web Vitals), and using an SSL certificate.

Evaluating UX & Usability

Heuristic Evaluation

One of the common ways of evaluating a website’s usability is to perform a heuristic evaluation. During a heuristic evaluation, experts evaluate a website based on well-established and well-researched principles (or heuristics). Heuristics aren’t specific rules—you don’t necessarily need to follow what these heuristics say but generally, you are better off doing so. That said, there are many gray areas and room for exceptions. So, these act as rules of thumb as you decide how specifically to design, write, and structure your website.

The question is what heuristics you evaluate a website against. There are many different best practices and principles listed on the web. But, the most popular list of usability heuristics comes from Jakob Nielsen. Some of Nielsen’s heuristics clearly apply to websites—like maintaining consistency, following standards, using the user’s language, avoiding errors, or making the website efficient to use. But, some are more beneficial to applications (software, web app, or mobile app)—like showing the system status or providing help and documentation. Other heuristics require a bit of a stretch to apply to websites, like adding accelerators for expert users…websites don’t typically have a lot of repeat visitors, let alone people who visit frequently enough to be considered an expert. But, to the extent there are repeat visitors, the general idea can apply of offering ways to make a return visit more satisfying.

Along with Nielsen’s heuristics, Ben Shneiderman has “8 Golden Rules Of Interface Design”. These mostly track with Nielsen’s heuristics. For instance, Shneiderman’s 8th golden rule, “Reduce short-term memory load,” tracks with Nielsen’s heuristic of favoring simpler and efficient designs. The difference is a greater emphasis on short-term memory by Shneiderman. This serves as a good reminder that most people aren’t storing how to use your website into their long-term memory system—typically people want to get in, do whatever they have to do with your website and forget your website exists.

Another group of heuristics are Arnold Lund’s “Usability Maxims”. These are a bit wittier than other heuristic lists (my favorite, “Know thy user, and YOU are not thy user.”). Probably the biggest problem is at 34 this becomes a bit hard to use a guide to evaluate a website—unlike 8 Rules or 10 Heuristics. Many of Lund’s maxims convey different aspects of the same concept. For example, Maxim 10 is “Keep It Simple,” and Maxim 24 is “Keep it neat. Keep it organized.” Both are unique concepts, but they get to the same basic idea that a usable website is simple and orderly (Nielsen and Shneiderman consolidate these concepts into one heuristic and rule). Like other heuristics, some of Lund’s Maxims apply a bit more to software and apps, but, with some stretching, you can apply most to a website as well as to software.

I also wrote about heuristics in my book, Elements of a Successful Website. In the book, I condensed all the other heuristics out there into five main themes and discussed how those apply to websites instead of apps. If you are interested, you can purchase my book on Amazon.

Taking to Users: Testing, Interviews, and Surveys

Another way of evaluating usability and UX is by taking with users directly. With this, you are collecting qualitative feedback about your website to see what needs to be improved.

For usability, talking with users often takes the form of usability tests. During a usability test, you ask users to complete specific tasks and see if they are able to do so. Often during usability testing, you will uncover obstacles that are preventing users from completing those tasks. You can also use usability testing to help identify technical SEO issues that are preventing your website from ranking higher in search results.
Side note: people refer to this as user testing, but this is inaccurate; you aren’t testing users, you are testing the website’s usability. You should refer to it as a usability test, not a user test.

For UX, talking with users often takes the form of surveys or interviews to understand what people think of the experience they’ve had when using your website. With a survey, you can reach many people but often don’t get very in-depth answers. With interviews, you will only talk to a small handful of representative users, but you can go deeper. The best answer is to use surveys and interviews together. After conducting surveys or interviews, you might find that people are dissatisfied or frustrated with certain aspects of the experience and can determine what changes will help ease that frustration.

Quantitative Review: UX Metrics

You can also review the usability and UX of the website by using quantitative data. This is often best used alongside qualitative data and heuristic evaluations to confirm suspicions or spot trends.

Within your analytics tool, you can measure how many people are able to complete various tasks on the website with event tracking to measure meaningful interactions and goals to measure conversions. Let’s say in the goal tracking reports you find people are not completing a lead generation form. Obviously, there are many reasons for this. One reason could be that some type of obstacle, like an error or design flaw, is preventing people from converting.

Of course, there might be nothing wrong with the website’s usability that would explain a lack of conversions. Instead, this lack of conversions you’ve found in your data might indicate a poor UX. Users could easily convert if they wanted to (the website is usable), but users don’t want to convert. If this is what you find, you can explore other metrics—like the time people are spending or the bounce rate. The longer people are spending without converting, the more people are likely frustrated by your website. The higher the bounce rate, the more people are likely dissatisfied with what the website offers.

Final Thoughts

Everything on a website relates to UX and usability. If people can’t use your website, you won’t have conversions, and, quite likely, Google won’t rank your website. If people find your website frustrating, you won’t have conversions, and, quite likely, you will struggle to conduct business online. It is important to step through and evaluate your website’s usability and UX regularly, whether via heuristics, testing, interviews, surveys, or by reviewing analytics. As you review, you want to find any obstacles or any pain points that you can remove. If you have questions or need help evaluating your website’s usability or UX, please let me know.

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