I had an interesting experience today trying to define and describe usability, usability testing, interface design, user testing, and other related terms. It was actually rather difficult for a number of reasons. First, I didn’t have any feedback on the level of detail to which I should delve. Should I go for a top level, non-technical definition or a detailed, lengthy exploration of all the subcategories and related ideas that go fall under the broad categories of usability and user testing?

It’s odd, I have a really good understanding of what usability and testing and such things are about, but I have not forced myself to succinctly define or describe what I do for others. Sometimes I ramble about various aspects of it to my friends and family and they gamely humor me as I go on in excruciating detail about some technical point they couldn’t care less about. However, I haven’t had to go justify such things to my clients or bosses, either they already understood it or they gave me such wide latitude in my actions that I didn’t have to justify my decisions to anyone else.

So here are a few of my attempts to define these terms and if you have suggestions and refinements I’d love to hear them.

USABILITY – A field of study dedicated to creating intuitive, simple, elegant, and functional products. The quality of being usable, or easy to use.

USABILITY TESTING – The process of testing a product or system to improve usability. An umbrella term for a wide variety of activities including user testing, heuristic evaluations, GOMS, surveys, focus groups, and other testing activities.

USER TESTING – The process of testing a product or system with actual users to locate problem areas and gain insights into actual user tasks and actions. This allows developers and designers to locate problems that they would not anticipate or locate using techniques such as a heuristic evaluations that do not incorporate real users into the testing.

INTERFACE DESIGN – The process of incorporating information from a wide variety of sources into a simple, elegant, intuitive, and functional interface for a system. Interface Design requires an understanding of use cases, user experience, business goals, user goals, visual design, development methodologies, and many other areas and the ability to synthesize and incorporate all of that information into a single unified design.

Kevin Hall
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