Usability – A Psychologist’s View

User Experience, more easily called UX, is in vogue these days and appropriately so given that complex products with new technologies are finding their way into user hands. So, UX needs to be good (compelling, as some might want to call) with these products.

No matter how hard we generalize an experience to be great for the user base, it comes down to individual differences that need to be factored in to determine what that experience is to a user. Of course, UX is never intended to be 100% compelling – ideally it can serve a bell shaped user base and claim success.

Before we go into these generalities, we need to understand what UX is. And then see how we can enable the products we design and build to provide a good experience to the user.

UX is not just relative to a product’s use but to all phases of its lifecycle (product lifecycle) such as awareness, acquisition, setup, learning, use and end of use/upgrade. However, when we evaluate UX, we generally look at the product use and determine what it was like and come to conclusions. The conclusions are more like usability conclusions rather than UX conclusions because the evaluation is isolated to product use.

Given that the use part of the product life-cycle is the most important from an experience perspective (because one has to live with a product for “some” time), it is not a bad thing to focus on usability. After all, not every part of the product lifecycle need be experienced by the same user. For example, I may be presented with a toy that was ready-to-use-set-up for me that I start to use right away. In this scenario, I have no context of the experiences relating to awareness, acquisition or setup. Someone else may have experienced those phases of the toy’s life-cycle.

Now to the product use experience, which we may call usability, kind of makes or breaks the usage. If I am frustrated using the toy it’s because I can’t revolve it, even though its core function is exactly that. Technically it’s capable of revolving but I just can’t make it do that for a myriad of reasons – it slips from my delicate hands, its knob too hard to push or simply I had no idea how to operate because there is no clue how it can be done in spite of my vigorous exploration.

So how to get this toy to rate high on usability? We can certainly tinker it to work the way we want but that can be dear. As designers and developers, we need to include usability as a core function in the design/development life-cycle of the product. This is different from the product life cycle I mentioned earlier. One is pre-product and the other is post-product.

The key to incorporating usability in the product design/development is to involve “users” early and iteratively test until you achieve a desired level of usability.

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