What is usability, and how can I apply it?

Brief Description

Usability means ensuring ease of use for any tool you create or develop. Usability also is important for structuring content, especially large sets of online reference content. Usability specialists define a usable tool (such as a discussion board, blog or website) as one that is easy to understand, and both easy and satisfying to use.

The basic principles of usability have been documented and discussed extensively. Nevertheless, it is unfortunately sometimes ignored when it is most needed, because it represents a different way of thinking about tools and content. Instead of thinking only about what we want to say, do or accomplish, usability demands that we understand how others think, in particular about any tool or system we invite them to use.


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When to use

You have the power to help your users, through improved usability, any time you are in charge of developing a new tool, such as during a custom development of a social networking platform.

Usability is also important in smaller projects: Even when you are only configuring or doing minor customization of a tool, you can apply usability to help make better choices. This applies when configuring a new wiki site for others to use; choosing the navigation and settings for a new CMS or bulletin board; or during any project where you have choices to make on the organization, look and feel of a tool.

Usability also applies to content: If content is created with the needs of the user in mind (for example, by choosing your vocabulary so that it is easily understood or resonates more powerfully, or by creating a structure for your content that corresponds to the real needs of the users), then its increased usability will pay dividends.

How to use

Here is a simple four- or five-step method for applying usability.

1. Focus on the top tasks for the tool
• A top task is a task that is very important for most of the people in your target group of participants, and that is within the scope of your mission for your tool. Understand what these are: Not all tasks will be top tasks!
• Conceptualize your tool or service with top tasks in mind. Prioritize them in your work and on the front page, and ensure that it gives a clear sense, within a few seconds of a user’s arrival, of what the top tasks are and how to accomplish them. Don’t ignore the less critical tasks, but find ways to manage them efficiently with due effort.
• Talk to users, get their feedback, and pay attention to your web metrics (statistics). This will give you evidence of what users themselves see as their top tasks. Listen and make adjustments as needed.

2. Make navigation clear and consistent
• Ensure your navigation or action options (buttons and links) stand out appropriately and look different from ordinary text.
• Be consistent: If your tool has multiple pages/views, put navigation items that appear everywhere on the site in the same places on all pages. Ensure that at least a few basic links appear on all pages. This will make it easier for users to learn where they can go and what they can do.

3. ‘Don’t make users think’
• Keep your available choices (options for taking actions such as replying or posting, or choices of available content) as obvious and self-explanatory as possible, by using simple language and making few assumptions about what users know.
• If you become aware of any aspect of the site that engenders uncertainty – concerning the purpose, content, or function of a link or other feature – then clarify or eliminate it.
• See Steve Krug’s site on usability, under the Resource section, for more on this philosophy of usability.

4. Test your site with real users.
• Usability testing involves watching users use the tool or system and seeing where they have trouble. Ideally you will use representative users and have them carry out top tasks, then simply watch what they do, without helping them. Test users one at a time, not in groups, with only yourself present as observer.
• Testing can be done cheaply and quickly, with a few users. Even just testing one user is far better than doing no testing. You will almost always be surprised by what users find easy and what is difficult for them.
Testing is the best way to see things from your users’ perspective. It is better than just asking their opinion: What users actually do is often not what they say, or remember doing, or think they would do. (Of course, you should also ask users’ opinion, but don’t neglect testing.)

5. (If you are actually designing a new platform:) Use a professional design with adequate whitespace, effective layout and good use of design conventions
• Quality of design is used, consciously or not, to assess the credibility of the source. Consistent use of style and colour throughout your site is key.
• Adequate whitespace helps readability and gives a more pleasing look.
• Studies confirm that users scan the top and left sides of web pages – the ‘Golden Triangle’. Place key content in these areas.
• Use similar design principles as on major platforms similar to your own. These are called ‘design conventions’ and they help users understand your site or service quickly.

Tips and Lessons Learnt

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Examples & Stories

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Who can tell me more?

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Related Methods / Tools / Practices

Related methods/tools/practices include focus groups (which are NOT usability but which are similar in a few ways), and measurement/statistics (which can demonstrate benefits from usability, and which can often pinpoint usability problems).


Jakob Nielsen’s site, useit.com, has regular newsletters and a wealth of original research.

The US Government’s official usability site includes detailed guidelines intended for public sector website usability.

Steve Krug is the originator of the ‘Don’t make me think’ approach to usability.


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