Enhancing User Experience: Usability in Software

02 November, 2023 | reading 4 min.

News title "Facilitating User Experience: Usability in Software" over the image of a tablet and laptop with interface design.

Let’s start at the beginning… What is usability?  

Before addressing its importance in software development, we need to understand its meaning. What does USABILITY mean? This word comes from “usable”, which means “available or convenient for use. Capable of being used”. In Spanish “usabilidad” has not yet been accepted by the RAE, although it is widely used and is included in some dictionaries.

This concept applies to anything that can be used by people, whether products, machines, or services. If you have bought a new coffee machine, and it is well-designed according to usability criteria, you will be able to use it without even reading the instructions, don’t you think?

Usability in software development

According to ISO/IEC 9126: on Software Quality, “usability refers to the ability of software to be understood, learned, used and appealing to the user, under specific conditions of use”. In short, the user experience should be easy and allow tasks to be performed satisfactorily and comfortably.

When you use something for the first time, that first impression counts. If your experience was good, you are more likely to use it again. Like visiting a supermarket for the first time, where shopping is easy because of the good signage, the layout of the products, the size of the aisles and the friendliness of the staff. This will make you more likely to shop there again in the future.

Since when have we been talking about usability?  

As usability does not only apply to digital products, it is a concept that has been used for many decades in other areas such as aviation or industry. And it is not new in the world of software either. In 1990 Jakob Nielsen and Rolf Molich first proposed the Nielsen Heuristic Principles, which are still widely accepted for designing effective and user-friendly interfaces.

These principles, considered good practices to follow in the UX design of digital products, are the following:

  1. Visibility of system status: inform the user of what is happening, such as the download time of an application.
  2. Match between system and real world: use concepts familiar to the user.
  3. User control and freedom: if mistakes are made, make them reversible. And for important actions, ask for confirmation with the possibility to cancel.
  4. Consistency and standards: don’t try to be creative with what works as standard (conventions) and be consistent throughout the product.
  5. Error prevention: a good error message is great, but preventing errors is even better.
  6. Recognition rather than recall: make it easily recognisable at a glance, so the user doesn’t have to struggle to think.
  7. Flexibility and efficiency of use: the user can get to what he/she is looking for by different paths, no matter if he/she is an expert user or not.
  8. Aesthetic and minimalist design: remove unnecessary noise and leave only what really adds value.
  9. Help users to recognise, diagnose and correct errors: there will always be errors, but if there are, help the user to solve them easily.
  10. Help and documentation: FAQs that are easy to find, relevant and understandable.

Simplicity is key: Don’t make me think”

Like Nielsen, Steve Krug’s approach also highlights the role of simplicity in designing usable digital products. His book “Don’t Make Me Think”, first published in 2000, is considered one of the basic bedside books for any UX designer.

In it, in a pleasant and easy to read way, Krug talks about the Usability Principle: “If something takes a lot of time, it is less likely to be used, or if something is complicated to use, I simply won’t use it too much”. Pretty logical, isn’t it?

He proposes these three rules for developing a usable digital product:

  • Don’t make me think: everything has to be obvious, clear and easy to understand. Avoid questions that distract from the final task and can lead to abandonment.
  • No matter the number of clicks, if the choice is mechanical and unambiguous: Make it easy to know where to click, to get it right effortlessly.
  • Remove half of the words from each page/screen. Then remove half of the remaining ones: Remove unnecessary speech and reduce instructions as much as possible.

He adds to these rules other principles such as a good hierarchy of information, the use of conventions whenever possible, or the design of a coherent and global navigation. And although technology changes very fast, his theories are still valid because human beings change very slowly. We keep scanning websites and applications quickly for the first option that seems to be minimally valid.

You may be wondering, if you follow all these premises in your project, will your product be usable?

Don’t make assumptions, check it out: usability testing.

This is where usability testing comes in. Both Nielsen and Krug emphasise the importance of simplifying, eliminating the superfluous and maintaining a clear design, but it is not enough to believe in the usability of your product; you must verify it.

How do we check it? With usability testing, which is crucial for identifying problems and improving product design. And here too, these authors agree, although they differ in approach and methodology. Nielsen and Krug also stress the need to test early in the design process, allowing iteration and correction based on the results.

The impact of a well- (or poorly) designed product

Just as we are more likely to repeat purchases in a shop with well-organised, labelled and accessible products, the impact of a well (or poorly) designed product is crucial. If it is well-designed and easy to use, it conveys professionalism and quality, building trust with users and strengthening the relationship with the brand. However, a confusing or unintuitive interface can lead to errors, delays and frustration for users, negatively affecting the perception of the product and the brand behind it.

Their impact is such that they should never be neglected and go through these tests quickly and ineffectively. They must be carefully designed and executed from the initial stages of the project. Only in this way we will achieve more effective designs, more satisfied users and a strengthened brand.

Do you need help with your usability testing? We have an Outsourced UAT (User Acceptance testing) service with which we have achieved significant improvements for companies like yours. Contact us, and we’ll see how we can help you.