What is usability anyway

With 57% of the UK population having access to the Internet now has never been a better time to launch a digital product, but research also shows that users have become more impatient. It now takes only 4 seconds for a customer to make a decision about the companies they encounter on the web, and whether they will use their products or services or go elsewhere.

With this in mind, it’s never been more important for a company to create a product that meets their customer’s expectations. It is essential to create an online experience that will engage the customer so that they feel as quickly as possible that the company not only has the item they want, but they are able to provide it in a way that is quick and simple.

Traditionally, these challenges have been met technically by software developers, websites have become more complex, and through the advancement of web 2.0 technologies there is very little to distinguish between a traditional software application and a website. Alongside the rise of technology and the Internet, a legion of usability engineers have been quietly working to shape the web to become more usable; more inline with customer’s expectations.

We all experience the efforts of these usability engineers but the truth is that most people still don’t know what usability actually means and what measurable benefit it will bring to a company.

What is usability?

“Usability is an approach to product development that incorporates direct user feedback throughout the development cycle in order to reduce costs and create products and tools that meet user needs” – What is usability (Usability Professionals Association)

In short, a usability engineer works with product developers to test how easy it is for someone to use their product. This is done many different ways but the most common are:

User testing – a usability engineer will watch people use something and make recommendations on how to improve it to give better results for the user.

Expert review – a usability engineer will review a product and make recommendations on how to improve it to giver better results for the user.

Make sense? Usability touches every part of your life; think about it tonight when you drive home, get through your front door to uncork a bottle of your favourite Chardonnay and relax while listening to your favourite music. The fact that you drove home in comfort and safety, that you got into your house, that you uncorked a bottle of wine, that you can literally listen to thousands of your favourite pieces of music on your MP3 player without even thinking about it, is testament to how much usability touches your life.

Across a study of 863 projects it’s been estimated that you can benefit from a measurable increase of 135% by setting aside 10% of your development budget for usability , as well as other benefits such as an increased in brand loyalty and word of mouth marketing.

Products have come a long way over the past 30 years, but there is still much to do. One area of usability that needs to greatly improve is accessibility; from 1st October 1999 it became a legal requirement that “a service provider had to take reasonable steps to change a practice which makes it unreasonably difficult for disabled people to make use of its services”.

What is accessibility?

Accessibility is the term that describes a field of usability that aims to explicitly improve the usability of a product for people with disabilities such as visual impairment, dyslexia, hearing impairment, mobility problems etc.

It’s no longer acceptable for a company to create a product without providing equal access to everyone. Moreover it’s really bad business!! I can’t think of any company that wouldn’t want some of the £50bn that the 8.6 million registered disabled citizens of the United Kingdom have to spend – or the £175 billion the UK’s over-50’s have to splash out (most people over 50 have some form of impairment such as deterioration of their sight).

The secret here is that accessibility isn’t expensive either, as long as it’s designed into your website from the start. A few simple techniques, can give you access to a combined market of 225 billion pounds, and if that isn’t good enough…those same simple techniques will make it piece of cake for Google to find and rank your website because Google accesses your website in the same was a visually impaired user with a screen reader does. Optimise for accessibility and your search engine ranking is likely to improve.

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