Fact vs. Fiction: What Usability is Not

When it comes to usability, Vishal Mehta helps us distinguish fact from fiction. In this post, he dispels eleven of the most common myths held by others regarding professional usability.

A close friend asked me a few days ago – “You’ve covered decent ground on the science, dimensions, characteristics, design aspects, process and pervasiveness of usability considerations. How about doing a reverse bit? What usability is not about? Or the myths of usability?” I jumped at the chance.

In choosing to write this, I am simply reinforcing the simple concept that it is also necessary to talk about the “NOT” part in a subject as complex as usability. This shall (I hope!) help in resolving ugly assumptions about the subject and expose more dimensions for discussion. Let’s take a journey of both – popular and unpopular myths of usability. The following are prevailing misconceptions (fast becoming legends!) of usability, in no particular order.

Usability is expensive

It is known that Stanford University, Microsoft, IBM, and many others spend tons of resources (money and human) on usability research, which is quite expensive. But regular and daily usability need not be expensive – thanks to a much evolved ecosystem that allows the science to be applied without having to spend a lot.

I agree that it’s not a commodity – that there’s a price to pay. But from a cost-benefit standpoint, more often than not, usability is not as expensive as it is perceived to be. The major contributor to this misconception is that usability is non-measurable in nature, hence it allows the argument and myth in question.

Usability is free

At the opposite end of the first misconception, a large number of people believe that usability can be free. I’ve seen many people ask suggestions on improving the usability of their site or product – on LinkedIn. There is a regular crowd that asks me personally about giving usability suggestions on their site. Well, for a matter as subjective as usability, the lack of real engagement in this kind of flat question-advice round, makes it even more subjective. Free advice and usability tips are available everywhere, but they’re more like the generic horoscope guidelines and predictions, in my opinion.

Usability is minimalism

The concept of minimalism is usually a nice and welcome change in today’s noisy world. Minimalism is about reducing clutter from your presence, by playing with content, number of pages, element sizes, images, white spaces and navigation. What we need to be aware of is that while usability will almost always get in some minimalism, the reverse is not necessarily true.

Going minimal is not alone going to get you usability. There are many areas of compromise if the distinction between the two is not well understood. Like, having graphic icons/buttons that consume less space instead of textual menus that consume more space. Or trying to fit all content on one screen by adjusting to a very difficult-to-read font size. Different solutions are appropriate at different times.

Usability is user experience

The fundamental difference is “Can easily use” vs. “Want to use”. Let’s take the best possible example here – the usability guru: Jakob Nielsen’s website. Usability guru that he is, his site is very functional and easy to use. But how do you think it scores on user experience? Would visitors love to browse the site for better experience? The answer is NO.

Again, there are some practitioners who believe building a good user experience is all that’s needed for making the site usable. That had led to the myth in question. Superior user experiences have failed miserably in usability, as it’s just one of the dimensions of usability. It is still important to have the right balance.

Usability is all art

Image by MitchellZappa

Art is something that mostly makes sense to the creator alone! Using that as an analogy, I’ve experienced my usability suggestions and advice being alienated to art and abstraction. This myth is more about a mind-block and prejudice than anything else. People think that you need to be an artist or a designer to create usability. Usability does not need artists, it requires fundamentalists and practical observers.

Being an artist can definitely provide an edge of translating the usability practice into a visual design. But otherwise, so much has been institutionalized as a science in the field of usability that companies can do without engaging an artist. However, one point in favor of the myth: There’s no denying that the best usability cases around us did have an art element and that shall continue to be the case. But…

Usability is simplicity

Simplicity is subjective. Even usability is subjective, but simplicity is consciously and directly subjective. Typical end-users are ignorant of technology/design, but they are not dumb. Making it simple is often understood and implemented, sadly, by treating users as dumb consumers.

So, most commonly, you will find people having giant task buttons, heavy label texts, prominent hints on screen, basically, all-important-functions-in-your-face attitude. Your concept of simple may not be so for your audience. This blind simplicity approach does not yield usability mostly, let alone always. Usability will drive simplicity laterally, not literally. Hence the myth is risky.

Usability kills creativity

This is one of the most common misconceptions (also nicely explained on Jakob Nielsen’s website). People think that following formal and scientific process in usability compromises the creative aspects, and leads to a compromised output. We need to appreciate here that the formal techniques, scientific processes are all a framework to guide and engage into usability practice. They are guidelines, not strict rules. Following them as such, you’ll undoubtedly fall prey to losing out on creativity. Following them as guidelines, you’ll get your out-of-the-box element inside your design.

Usability is common sense

The point of argument here is that common sense has a risk of being singular in nature, only with the assumption that it’ll be common to all. Like the famous quote: Common sense is not so common! In the perspective, common sense is merely an opinion at large with weak justifications from a random collection of users or concepts. So, it’s difficult to theorize based on the common sense equation. Very few things can command usability as common to all as a Google’s search. It’s more about amalgamation of varied wisdom and practicing that into your usability design. Naturally, this myth complements myth #2; since usability is perceived as common sense, it can be free.

Usability is good design

Good design (leaving apart the subjective angle) is only an element or output of usability – in practical sense. Otherwise, it’s more like a philosophy. Usability done with a philosophy of good design, would make it effective, error-tolerant, engaging, etc. This part I echo. My argument is towards the literal aspect about the myth, that a good design brings usability. In a way, this has a resemblance to myth #4: usability is User Experience. A good user interface design is not going to save a product if it is not useful or low on performance or erroneous. The usability and acceptance of such products have no connection with the presence or absence of good design.

Usability is about following some rules

Allow me to paint a wider picture here. Millions of books are available, being published and read all the time, that are self-help, how-to-guides, step-by-step. Thousands of blogs and articles teach and preach (including mine, I’m afraid!) about things you assume you’ll be able to learn and apply. That’s a fair assumption, albeit if all the literature is not taken literally. You need to constantly remind yourselves that there are no rules, only guidelines. You need to treat these reference materials as unbiased guidelines that you will taken into account – devising your own framework, your own rule-set, allowing enough flexibility too – if you want to apply consistently. Complex subjects are never mastered with step-by-step-wizard like software installations. Usability is no exception to this.

Usability is a luxury

The myth and the related corollaries that “usability can be done at the end”, “we don’t need usability to survive” can be near fatal, if given into. In today’s competitive times, where switching cost is so low, consumers will not hesitate switching to a more usable product with less features. Consider how DropBox scores over Minus and other similar products – only because they have done a fantastic usability job. DropBox does not even offer maximum storage space for free as others; still it commands the loyalty leading to a market valuation of 5 Billion Dollars!

Usability is fast becoming the key to survival; just that many are not aware of this. If you ignore or take it up as a low priority, the perceived quicker time to market is only going to cause harm. We cannot afford any myths. We need to be embracing reality and changing business and user needs; we need to be more agile to these demands, and from a product/website perspective, we need a more conscious effort on usability. It will enable marketing and empower sales. You will find this element common to all the successes in the world, and also find this element missing from all the failures in the world. And that’s not a myth!

Related Resources

About the Author

Vishal Mehta

Vishal Mehta is a usability professional who loves to play chess and has a strong eye for details. He's also the CEO of IDYeah Creations, a UX practice in Pune, India. You can follow him on twitter at @idyeahc or read more on his usability blog.

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29 Comments

  • Chris Beiser Reply

    I agree with most of what you say, but the claim that “Superior user experiences have failed miserably in usability” is just plain ridiculous. You link to a page that talks about desirability, not user experience, and I’m pretty sure that it’s impossible to have a good user experience on a site that isn’t usable, because if you want to use the site, and you can’t, you’re going to be pretty unhappy. The only caveats I can think of is if people don’t want to ‘use’ the site, just be on it for some other thing (pretty colors, etc), in which case they’re actually using it and finding it usable, just not for the intended purpose. Please show me one site that provides a good experience but isn’t usable, because I have a suspicion that by definition they cannot exist. (that is, short of a site for buying stuff that doesn’t sell you things but instead sends you bricks of money in the post.)

    • Vishal Mehta Reply

      Very well put, Chris. The myths are mostly about interpretations that people have, not the definitions. I too echo your point (99%) that UX and Usability aren’t mutually exclusive. My common observations about what UX means to people has allowed for the myth to exist and became a topic for discussion. Thanks for contributing to the discussion – really appreciate it.

  • Matt Reply

    This article is awesome, but I feel as though you may not have exactly defined the difference between UX and Usability quite correctly.

    Usability falls under the umbrella that is UX. Further, to say satisfaction of use isn’t part of usability is, if I am not mistaken, simply incorrect. If you look to Jakob Nielson himself, satisfaction is listed in in the definition of usability: http://www.useit.com/alertbox/20030825.html. So by his definition of Usability, and you not being satisfied using his site, his site is lacking in one of the 5 components of what it means to be usable.

    In addition I would like to suggest this explanation of the difference between the two which I feel is a bit more appropriate: http://www.uie.com/brainsparks/2007/03/16/the-difference-between-usability-and-user-experience/

    This article is fantastic, and I only mean this comment to be constructive. I am by no means an expert and could totally wrong, but just wanted to point out these resources and my understanding of them. Thanks!

    • Vishal Mehta Reply

      Thanks much, Matt for your appreciation and for taking the effort to add clarity to the concept of UX and Usability. I am evolving I believe and these interactions play a significant role in just doing that. Your feedback is constructive and I will consume the same so :) Cheers.

  • Coco Reply

    I think in the paragraph about “Usability is user experience” you mistook user experience for graphic design.

    To use your own example, I know Nielsen’s website, and I think it was a decent UX, because my needs (finding useful information) were met in a simple way. You may say that that’s what usability is for. Actually, a fuller UX would have involved a much nicer interface – mind you, not an annoying flash splash pages: i’m talking about a less cold and impersonal look and feel.

    UX includes both usability and the psychological pleasure in using a website or an app, and this quite flips your statement that “it’s just one of the dimensions of usability”. You were implying “UX”, but what you really meant was “graphic design”.

    The link you provided to support your argument confirms my observations, as it never mentions “user experience”, and links to websites which went too far on the “creative” side and surely are in no way “superior user experiences”.

    • Vishal Mehta Reply

      Great observation, Coco. Thanks for reading in and pointing out the inconsistent sketch and gaps. I must agree that certain terms have been used liberally and are a little more about the specific (hence subjective) interpretations of my interactions with people. Your comments are clean and valuable. Thanks again.

  • sl-wk Reply

    Great article! Very useful.

  • zefan Reply

    Perhaps a more common view is that usability is part of user experience, not the other way around.

    • Vishal Mehta Reply

      Good point, Zefan. In some geographies (including mine), I’ve mostly come across the myth I put across; but yes, your point is also valid and duly noted.

  • Hardik Vyas Reply

    Very useful points(Its like cleaning a Windshield!)

    Thanks

  • Holly G. Reply

    Great article! These are definitely common misconceptions that most people have about usability and you described them in a way that people outside of the field can understand.

    • Vishal Mehta Reply

      Thanks Holly – especially about the point on having a connection with people outside the field.

  • bobcat Reply

    I have two comments on UX and Usability.
    First UX is a variable umbrella which can be as simple as Usability and Graphic/Visual design to literally every aspect of the user experience, from the initial awareness of a product via marketing or word of mouth, to end-of-life of the product and including everything in between such as tech support, manuals, service agreements, and even billing. Personally I subscribe to the latter definition. (There’s a separate issue in that being an artist and being a graphic designer are not interchangeable terms. But that’s a different discussion.)

    The second point that was touched upon is that in the pure sense, theoretical usability approaches improve actual usability. Example. If you have a complex task that requires the usability designer to choose between the ‘fewest keystrokes’ approach where the user is told that they have to complete 8 steps to complete the task vs. the blind next step approach (where the user may have to complete 16 more easily comprehensible steps, but is never told how many steps more there are to complete the task.
    Excluding the expert user, in the first case, the user may find that 8 steps may appear daunting and simply stop. In the latter, since the steps were easy to understand and therefore easy to follow, then the process is completed, and often without complaint about the length of the process.

    I suppose this latter issue is less of a myth than a common misuse of usability. It still seems relevant to your article (which I found wonderfully useful and concise. Thanks)

    • Vishal Mehta Reply

      Nice articulation, Bob. Thanks for adding on to the discussion. Your “wizard-next-step” example aptly describes how usability is often misused – very valuable correlation with the readers I hope.

  • Chris Callaghan Reply

    Great article!, but I thought we were done with the whole “UX versus usability” issue when we knocked “UCD” on the head ;)

    bobcat mentions UX as an umbrella term…

    The best way I found to satisfy my understanding of UX (which may help others) is that UX is the “horizontal” which crosses a whole bunch of “verticals” – a spectrum of specialisms from strategy to research to IA to UI to IXD to graphic design to content creation and development.

    In this concept, UX isn’t comparable to anything else… everything else is a specialism which plays a part within the overall UX; whether it be business analysis and setting UX objectives right through to coding up interactive prototypes.

    For me, this is a great way to understand how much UX engagement to apply to a project and which elements of the spectrum and specialims are required. I believe the job of the UX’er is to have an overview of the verticals (and a few specialisms) and to know what to apply, where and when.

    For me, this fits really well with the whole interdisciplinary T-skills concept from IDEO back in the 90s.

    • Vishal Mehta Reply

      Your explanation is certainly helpful, Chris – to me as well as the readers I’m sure. Thanks for contributing to the discussion.

  • Mide S Reply

    Very thoughtful article… have to admit I always thought UX and usability were very similar, the example of Jakob Nielsen’s site really drove your point home!
    How about accessibility? That’s becoming a big issue especially in N. America with section 508 etc.

    • Vishal Mehta Reply

      Thanks Mide for reading in and giving your 2 cents. You’re right about accessibility; it’s a sensitive subject and an essential part of usability. Additional read about the topic: Usability Dimension: Accessible

  • Tim from IntuitionHQ Reply

    Great article. I must say I read lots of articles about usability. But it is the first time someone highlights the difference between usability and UX with a really good example. Thanks.

  • Stuart Hopper Reply

    My point is about ‘free’. I think usability is largely free to those with the initiative to identify conventions. Everywhere on the web you see conventions being used (& set) and by following these conventions you can get (depending on exactly how niche your subject matter is) at least most of your users experience usable. I get a bit annoyed with some people’s/organisations’ obsession with user research/testing – most of the knowledge is already out there in the world being used – you just need to copy it. The big boys have done all the legwork, just copy it – this is the great leveller of the web that allows small companies to compete with large.. User research & testing i.e. the expensive stuff, is only needed for novel design challenges..

  • Vishal Mehta Reply

    Thanks for your comment, Stuart. Few assumptions here, as I see. Copying or borrowing is fine provided the big boys have done it right, and the users match our users. The point here is about contextual match-making for copying what’s already been done. Your point has weight and I echo about annoyance related to the obsession of some people/companies. Seeing parallel models on the web is part of usability research; even that is not free, it does carry a fee of time right?

  • Vishal Reply

    Very insightful article. Thanks for the valuable article.

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