Usability in Web Design

Usability is defined by the Merriam-Webster online dictionary as:

  • Capable of being used
  • Convenient and Practicable for use

When applied to our on-line interactions web usability refers to how convenient and practical a web-site is to use.  The principles of web-usability have been born out of the ecommerce sector in which the usability of a site is directly linked to its ability to generate revenue.

Jakob Nielsen is considered one of the pioneers of web usability and defined usability as encompassing five components.

  • Learnability – how well can a new user learn the web-site interface?
  • Efficiency – how fast can tasks be performed by an experienced user?
  • Memorability – how easily can proficiency with a site be regained after a period of absence?
  • Errors – how many errors does a user perform? How serious are they ? How are they recovered from?
  • Satisfaction – how likable is the system?

Nielsen also cites utility as an equally important factor as usability. Utility is governed by the somple question of:

  • Does the site do what it needs to do?

Some common errors made which reduce usability include:

  • No search function
  • Links to nowhere – 404 Page not found errors
  • No contact details / method
  • Poor text layout
  • Poorly identified links
  • Poor placement of key content

Why should we care about usability?

In the age of FOAM / #FOAMed we are not trying to sell things, so why should we care about usability.  Usability is linked to how long people spend viewing a site and also how likely they are to return / recommend a site. Image a class room in which student could come and go as they please, that is the equivalent of online medical education resources. If your ‘classroom’ is not usable then your students will get up and leave!


Let’s have a look at a site from a usability/user experience perspective, the lottery pick is The Australiasian College of Emergency Medicine Website.

Below are some thoughts from my user’s experience.

  • I have been using this site for several years but I’m not a regular visitor.
  • My main use of the site is to access my OTA which is easily done once the page has loaded.
  • The main body of the home page is unfortunately taken up in part by a long list of media releases followed by employment links.
  • Multiple login’s required – I’m still not sure which bits of the site I have to login to access.
  • eLearning section incredibly difficult to navigate and appears to have no clear structure.
  • The useful links section in the left column contains some pertinent links but these are poorly identified behind several layers expanding page lists.
  • Site map link is hidden at the top and bottom of the page

Further Reading

  • – Jakob Nielsen’s Website
  • Usability 101 Introduction to Usability – blog post on
  • – a US Government website promoting web usability and user-centred design
  • Cook DA, Dupras DM. A Practical Guide To Developing Effective Web-based Learning. J Gen Intern Med. 2004 June; 19(6): 698–707. Full text here



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