Have you ever used a product that just didn’t work the way it needed to? The tire iron with a slippery grip, the shower curtain with the holes too far from the top, the mobile website with text that’s too small; we’ve all had those products that were just not “right” when we used them. On the surface, nothing may seem wrong with them and even others using them might not have a problem, but to some users there’s a niggle that makes the product or service not effective for them. If something doesn’t work, then someone will either fix it to make it work for them (commonly referred to as “hacking”, both in computers and in the physical world) or they will stop using it. In the case of a physical product, if the product doesn’t work for the users they will be wary of buying your products again, regardless if they are able to hack it. For websites and applications, unless yours is absolutely required or unique, users won’t sit around trying to figure out a confusing and cumbersome navigation structure; they’ll just leave and go to your competition.

Quite simply, usability is a measure of how easy to use a tool is, whether that tool is a hammer or a website. If design is the art of solving problems, then usability is the art of measuring the effectiveness of the solutions and usability design is about finding out what works and what doesn’t for your users.

Humble and ancient beginnings

Although usability now seems inextricably linked to websites and computer applications, it really refers to how easily a human can interact with a non-human object. One could infer then that usability really started as soon as our ancestors began using tools: with the ancient homonid who found a rock that fit their hand. Historically however, humans have been actively studying and standardizing some of the foundations of usability since the 1st century BCE with the Roman architect and civil engineer Vitruvius, whose principles of design have influenced what we think of as beautiful design even to the present day. You might recognize his name from the quite famous Leonardo da Vinci drawing titled “Vitruvian Man,” whose proportions are based on the work of Vitruvius.

"Vitruvian Man" by Leonardo da Vinci

Building upon these and other Roman or Greek standards of beautiful and usable design, the Industrial Revolution saw a great interest in the study of what some referred to as “human factors.” During World War I, the military was very keen on making weapons and other machinary easier, safer, and more efficient for soldiers to use, and they applied strategies and methodology adapted from both Frederick Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management and the work of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth. (Interesting aside: the Gilbreth family and their theories of efficiency are the subject of the book “Cheaper By the Dozen”, written by their son Frank Bunker Gilbreth, Jr. and his wife Ernestine Gilbreth Carey. You might also have seen the movie “adaptations” starring Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt, although they share only superficial resemblances.)

The modern idea of “usability” in the context of software applications and computer systems started, unsurprisingly, in the 1980s after the personal computer was developed. Before this, computer and operating systems were complex and only a very few people were familiar with them or trained to use them, so the idea of improving the usability of the system was not a top priority. That changed as more and more people started using computers in their work and even daily lives, and usability finally become an important design feature for computer programmers, software engineers, and computer manufacturers, not to mention users. Of course, the software usability of the 1980s bears little resemblance to the usability of today’s computing contexts, but the core concept remains the same: making the interactions between a human and a tool more efficient.

Where usability falls under the user experience umbrella. From the amazingly talented Dan Willis.

Whooptydoo. But what does it all mean Basil?

I’m sure by now you’re wondering how this might impact you as a website owner. Well, usability is just as important now as it ever was in history. If users can’t find what they are looking for on a website (one of the most common usability issues), they will leave. As usability expert Jakob Nielsen puts it, “The ultimate failure of a website is to fail to provide the information users are looking for.” By ignoring the usability of a website, a business risks losing customers and therefore revenue. Designing your website around the ultimate goals of your users will result in a better user experience, which means happier customers and potentially more revenue. Fortunately, the Nielsen Norman Group has a great set of guidelines for homepage usability:

  1. Make your website’s purpose clear. Emphasize what value your business brings to the user, and how you differ from your competition.
  2. Give users the ability to find what they need.
  3. Show the site content, don’t make users wait for inner pages.
  4. Don’t rely only on aesthetics: enhance, don’t define, your user experience with visual design.

Read about how to avoid the most common usability mistakes on your homepage, or dive into the full 113 homepage usability guidelines for additional detail.


I hope this has been an informative trip into what usability is and how it affects your website or application. If you have comments or questions, feel free to shoot me an email at hello@smokielee.com.

References and additional reading