User Friendly ≠ Usability?

Whenever someone asks what I do or what I’m studying, and I see his or her eyes glaze over when I launch into a definition of HCI, I usually resort to saying, “I want to make things like web pages and software applications more user friendly.”

Most people understand that term because they can relate.  They’re users, and they like things to be friendly.

We are currently in between projects in the Usability Lab where I work.  So, I’m passing the time by catching up on all those things I’ve been meaning to read but haven’t gotten around to. (Well, not ALL of them, but a few anyway!)

I’m finally reading Nielsen’s Usability Engineering in its entirety (instead of the few chapters that were assigned for a class discussion).  Neilsen gives us five attributes with which to measure usability (learnability, efficiency, memorability, errors, and satisfaction).

He then states (emphasis is mine):

Even if you do not intend to run formal measurement studies of the usability attributes of your system, it is an illuminating exercise to consider how its usability could be made measurable.  Clarifying the measurable aspects of usability is much better than aiming at a warm, fuzzy feeling of “user friendliness” [Shackel 1991]

So, after reading that, I began to ask myself just what exactly does “user friendly” mean?  I did some quick Googling, and I discovered that not many people really know!  It does conjure up a “warm, fuzzy feeling” doesn’t it?

When you last used Orbitz  to book a flight, did you feel warm and fuzzy afterward?  Probably not.  You may have been satisified with your interaction, but, did you really think that Orbitz was “friendly” when it showed you all of the flights from O’Hare to San Fran on one particular date?

So, I’ve decided that I now need to find another way to explain what I do and study.  How about, “I want to make things like web pages and software applications easier to learn, more efficient and satisfying”?

Anyone have any suggestions?  How do others explain what usability is to their non-HCI family, friends, acquaintances, and strangers.  Please leave a me a comment if you are so inclined 🙂


2 responses to this post.

  1. Jenny-
    Good question.
    I usually talk about usability in terms of taking a human-centered approach, so instead of building a better bigger faster website/device, we make things that people actually like (and dare I say enjoy?) using. We do this through working with people, something we usually call user studies (even though yes, I don’t like the term user that much).
    PS Orbitz is terrible I have sworn to never, ever use them after they gave me an impossible connection.


  2. Posted by michael on July 23, 2008 at 1:43 pm

    I go with your second explanation: “I make websites easier to learn and use.” I agree with the post title — I’ve seen users rave about how great a site was (user-friendly) even though they were unable to complete their task (usability).

    PS Like Aaron, I’ve sworn off Orbitz for the same reason. Bad connections; worse customer service.


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