Usability Engineering

What is usability engineering?

Usability measures how user-friendly a system is. Usability engineering is a professional discipline focused on optimizing the interactions between people and interactive systems.

Usability engineering leverages computer science theories and behavioural psychology to build products in accordance with the needs and requirements of real end-users. Usability engineers typically hold a bachelor’s in Computer Science as well as a background in Psychology, which enables them to apply knowledge of human behaviour to the creation of technology.

In a product development cycle, usability should be identified prior to prototyping. If usability is poor, revisions should be made before progressing the product further. The better the usability, the greater the chances of creating a successful product that users can easily interface with.

Standards and guidelines

When considering usability, it’s important to consider the related field of accessibility. Usability speaks to the ease of use for the general population, but accessibility addresses the ease of use for people with various physical disabilities.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has created a set of standards and guidelines for industry professionals to facilitate the use of software applications and web by people with disabilities. Below are the standards that they have developed.

The Web Accessibility Initiative guidelines

This guideline states that any website should be able to be viewed on any devices (e.g. smartphones or tablets), not only on desktop or laptop computers.

Section 508 government guidelines applicable to all public-sector websites

Section 508 government guidelines applicable to all public-sector websites

ADA guidelines for accessibility of state and local government websites

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities. Under this law, people with disabilities should have full access to the web.

IBM guidelines for accessibility of websites

This guideline states that all user interface components must be accessible to all users. For example, captions should be added for audio or video.

Methods and tools

Here are a few common methods and tools used within usability engineering.

Usability testing

Usability testing involves testing the user-friendliness of a system with real people. Users are asked to complete multiple tasks, while someone observes and documents the process. This information is used to evaluate how easily the user was able to complete the task, and identify where improvements can be made in the system.

Focus groups

A focus group provides in-depth insight into how consumers feel about a product, and can be used to highlight usability issues. Facilitators lead a group of participants (usually selected based on specific criteria such as age, gender, location, race, disabilities, etc.) through a session with a specific system or product. Interactions with the product are observed, documented, and used to inform product iterations.

Cognitive walkthrough

In a cognitive walkthrough, facilitators ask participants to complete a specific task with a product (e.g. navigate through a website), then ask them questions about the tasks (e.g. how easy was it to complete this task?). The answers are recorded and used to evaluate and improve the usability of the system.

Contextual inquiry

This is a form of one-on-one interviewing where the facilitator watches the user perform a series of tasks, and discusses the activity with the user in real-time. This is an informal, collaborative approach where the user can actively ask questions and provide feedback, rather than simply be observed during the task.

Related Terms

Brand Strategy

Brand strategy involves translating your technical offering into a clear value proposition and backing it up with a messaging framework and brand personality you can own.

Anchor Text

Otherwise known as link text, a link title, or a link label, anchor text can be described as clickable words or phrases within a hyperlink that connects two web pages.

Search Engine

Database tools that help users find content on the World Wide Web. Once a user enters a keyword or search query, search engines curate a list of the most relevant webpage URLs, images, or videos, known as the Search Engine Results Page (SERP).