Usability Metrics

In [TAOUP] we introduced five basic metrics to categorize the quality of interfaces: concision, expressiveness, ease, transparency, and scriptability.

Concise interfaces have a low upper bound on the length and complexity of actions required to do a transaction; the measurement might be in keystrokes, gestures, or seconds of attention required. Concise interfaces get a lot of leverage out of relatively few controls.

Expressive interfaces can readily be used to command a wide variety of actions. Sufficiently expressive interfaces can command combinations of actions not anticipated by the designer of the program, but which nevertheless give the user useful and consistent results.

The difference between concision and expressiveness is an important one. Consider two different ways of entering text: from a keyboard, or by picking characters from a screen display with mouse clicks. These have equal expressiveness, but the keyboard is more concise (as we can easily verify by comparing average text-entry speeds). On the other hand, consider two dialects of the same programming language, one with a Unicode-string type and one not. Within the problem domain they have in common, their concision will be identical; but for anyone concerned with internationalization, the dialect with Unicode characters will be much more expressive.

Ease is inversely proportional to the mnemonic load the interface puts on the user — how many things (commands, gestures, primitive concepts) the user has to remember specifically to support using that interface. Programming languages have a high mnemonic load and low ease; menus and well-labeled on-screen buttons are easier to learn and use, but usually trade away concision or expressiveness for this virtue.

Transparent interfaces don't require the user to remember the state of his problem, his data, or his program while using the interface. An interface has high transparency when it naturally presents intermediate results, useful feedback, and error notifications on the effects of a user's actions. So-called WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) interfaces are intended to maximize transparency, but can sometimes backfire — especially by presenting an over-simplified view of the domain.

Discoverable interfaces make it easy for the user to form and maintain a mental model not of the problem domain, but of the user interface itself. Discoverable interfaces usually leverage the user's understanding of the problem domain to help them figure out the controls. Various forms of assistance like on-screen labels, context sensitive help, or explanatory balloon popups can increase discoverability. But more important are qualities like the ability to experiment without damaging anything, and immediate feedback to let the user know what they just did when they try something. A truly discoverable interface makes the relationship between the controls and the task they perform intuitively obvious, and rewards experimentation rather than punishing it.

These virtues also have negative formulations in terms of staying out of the user's way. A concise interface doesn't get in the way by forcing the user to wade through a lot of waste motion to get the work done. An expressive interface doesn't get in the way by imposing the programmer's preconceptions about what the user is there to accomplish and how they're likely to go about it. An interface with ease doesn't get in the way by requiring users to learn and remember lots of non-obvious controls. A transparent interface doesn't get in the way by obscuring the state of the problem. A discoverable interface doesn't get in the way by requiring the user to attend a training course or read a manual.

For completeness, we'll note that scriptable interfaces is are those which are readily manipulated by other programs. Scriptability reduces the need for costly custom coding and makes it relatively easy to automate repetitive tasks. Scriptability will not be a major theme in this book; see [TAOUP], instead, for an in-depth discussion.