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Usability, User-Centered Design, & Learnability
by Marcia Conner

Usability. (yoo'za-bi-li-tee) 1. Usability is a generic term that refers to design features that enable something to be user-friendly. The term, and the concepts it encompasses, can be applied to anything from a paring knife to a space station, but here we use it to refer to features that make a Web site user-friendly. 2. The effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction with which users can achieve tasks in a particular environment of a product. High usability means a system is: easy to learn and remember; efficient, visually pleasing and fun to use; and quick to recover from errors. 3. Fit for use; that can be used; capable of being used. In web design, this refers to the capability of a web site to be used by everyone. Usability issues include interface and navigation design (can the user easily understand how to find their way around the site), content layout (small blocks of text that are not too wide are easier for reading on the web), and accessibility and compatibility issues. For instance, Web sites with usability problems could be hard to navigate, difficult for disabled people to use, or have unclear instructions for use.

User-centered Design.  An approach to design grounded in information about the people who will use the product or system. Focus on users through the planning, design and development of a product. First, specify the context of use. Identify the people who will use the product, what they will use it for, and under what conditions they will use it. Second, Specify requirements. Identify any business requirements or user goals that must be met for the product to be successful. Third, create design solutions. This part of the process may be done in stages, building from a rough concept to a complete design. Fourth, evaluate designs. The most important part of this process is that evaluation - ideally through usability testing with actual users - is as integral as quality testing is to good software development.

Learnability. Originally a linguistic theory, learnability refers to the qualities of a system or process that help make it easy (and worthwhile) to learn. Ideally, products would have no learning curve: when you used them for the very first time you could achieve instant mastery. In practice, all applications and services, no matter how simple, will display a learning curve.


Usability Professionals Association

10 Usability Heuristics

Basic Principles for Interface Design



"The engineer's first problem in any design situation is to discover what the problem really is." — unknown

"Try moving usability thinking into our buildings, call centers, forms and products. It's common sense: If your business is easier to use than your competitor's, people will be more likely to do business with you. A usable business is a more competitive business." David McQuillen


"The trouble with software is... it sucks. That's not a nice thing to say... but it is a fundamental truth. Software customersyou, me, CIOs of multibillion-dollar companies...have learned to live with mediocre software. We do not count on software to be intuitively easy to understand or to work consistently. Instead, we make do. Stewart Alsop

We're big believers in the benefits of usability testing, learnability, user-centered design, and a strong user experience to ensure  people can learn from whatever you've created. If you design programs for other people to learn from, we encourage you to review the following articles, books, websites & resources to introduce you to the theme. This is by no means a complete list, but some solid places to begin.


There are very few articles about usability as it relates to learning and training products. We list those we know about. Drop us a line if you know of others are are interested in interviewing for your upcoming article.

Usability-Tested E-learning? Not Until the Market Requires It by Ann Quigley. eLearn Magazine (Feb-04-2002) "Rolling user-centered design techniques like task analysis into e-learning software development is pretty uncommon on both the corporate training and higher education fronts.... The idea of e-learning usability is still so new it’s barely on the market’s radar screen."

10 Tips for Designing Usable E-Learning Compuware.

Balancing Usability and Learning in an Interface Georgia Tech

Designing Web-Based Training: Combining Usability Issues & Learning Theory

Guidelines For Designing Online Learning

Jakob Nielsen on elearning "Just how important is usability in e-learning? We ask usability guru Jakob Nielsen on this and other wide-ranging issues."

Principles of Educational Multimedia User Interface Design

Usability, User Experience, and Learner Experience "Boosters of on-line learning promote its lower costs, broader accessibility, and personalization potential. But much e-learning still has slow adoption and high dropout rates. Online learning leaves many students frustrated or unenthusiastic. The good news is that concepts and processes for addressing these shortfalls in learner experience can be found in the field of usability. In this paper, I outline ways in which the field of usability, properly understood, can help online learning fulfill its promise."

Usability 101: Helping You Design Better Web Courses

Usability of Training Software

Why People Can't Use eLearning "Unusable interfaces will cost eLearning companies billions of dollars in lost revenues because many people won’t be able to use their products."

There are more good articles available on general usability issues.

Taking Usability Offline by David McQuillen. Darwin Magazine (June 2003) "It worked for your website. Now try letting usability help you create a more usable business."

Usability Testing "Usability testing is the process of working with end-users directly and indirectly to assess how the user perceives a software package and how they interact with it. This process will uncover areas of difficulty for users as well as areas of strength. The goal of usability testing should be to limit and remove difficulties for users and to leverage areas of strength for maximum usability."

Usability: the Basics "Want to impress your visitors? Forget the fancy graphics and neat technical tricks, just choose the right page width and hyperlink colors. Here's a basic introduction to the science of usability, drawing on research, expert opinion, and common features from the Web's most popular sites."

What Does Usability Mean: Looking Beyond 'Ease of Use' by Whitney Quesenbery. Cognetics. "The definition of usability is sometimes reduced to "easy to use," but this over-simplifies the problem and provides little guidance for the user interface designer. A more precise definition can be used to understand user requirements, formulate usability goals and decide on the best techniques for usability evaluations. An understanding of the five characteristics of usability – effective, efficient, engaging, error tolerant, easy to learn – helps guide the user-centered design tasks to the goal of usable products." [link updated 4/22/04]]


Don't Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability by Steve Klug. Read a chapter from Steve's website.

Designing Web Usability by Jakob Nielsen

Information Architecture for the World Wide Web: Designing Large-Scale Web Sites by Louis Rosenfeld, Peter Morville (Paperback)

About Face: The Essentials of User Interface Design Alan Cooper. IDG Books Worldwide, 1995.

The Design of Everyday Things Donald A. Norman. Currency Doubleday, 1990 reissue (former title Psychology of Everyday Things).

Designing Business: Multiple Media, Multiple Disciplines. Clement Mok. Book and CD-ROM, 1996.

Designing Websites With Authority: Secrets of an Information Architect. Jakob Nielsen. 1998.

The Desktop Publisher's Idea Book: One-Of-A-Kind Projects, Expert Tips, and Hard-To-Find Sources. Chuck Green

The Inmates are Running the Asylum: Why High Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How To Restore The Sanity. Alan Cooper. 1999.

Interactivity by Design: Creating & Communicating With New Media. Ray Kristof, Amy Satran. 1995

The Invisible Computer:  Why good products can fail, the personal computer is so complex, and information appliances are the solution. Donald A. Norman. 1998.

Memory and Attention: An introduction to human information processing. Donald A. Norman. John Wiley & Sons, 1969. <This book is no longer in print, but if you find a copy, get it!>

Tog on Interface Bruce Tognazzini. A classic with a wonderful question/answer format.

The Trouble With Computers: Usefulness, Usability, and Productivity. Thomas K. Landauer. The MIT Press: Cambridge, MA, 1995.

Usability Engineering Jakob Nielsen. Very best book on Usability, worth reading often.

Visual Interface Design for Windows Virginia Howlett. Clearly written, beautifully illustrated.

Websites & Resources Jakob Nielsen shares his thoughts on usability through a bi-weekly column on usability issues (alertbox), as well as reports and books on usable information technologies. Also see Jakob Nielsen on elearning

Boxes and Arrows, a terrific magazine from the Usability Professionals Association. is an excellent resource site...great links, e-newsletters, and articles from authoring to strategy.

Nielsen Norman Group offers both consulting as well as some good articles and resources

Usability Professionals' Association is an organization for usability professionals and promotes usability concepts and techniques worldwide.

Usability Resources  offers a long list of usability sites, articles, and resources.

Usability Toolkit is a collection of forms, checklists and other useful documents for conducting usability tests and user interviews."

Usable Learning lists articles and references.

Usable Web has lots of links about web usability from Keith Instone.

User Centered Design Methodology is a food overview of usability, definitions, evaluating, etc.

Web Developer's Virtual Library offers useful tutorials on many development subjects.

Web Design Resources is an extensive resource listing from HTML to graphics, to usability, to style sheets. Educational focus.

Web Pages That Suck "Where you learn good Web design by looking at bad Web design."

Webmonkey offers scripts, library, HTML resources, style sheets, etc.

WebWord takes a very broad approach to usability and human factors. John gives you quality information about everything from the usability of email to reading on the web to gaining the trust of your users. "

Wichita State University's "Usability News" (updated)


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Last Updated:
April 9, 2005