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Principles of usability

Usability makes the difference between finding an answer and understanding what it means.

The magnitude of available data in general has exploded to such an extent that the average human’s ability to learn from it has not kept up. When it comes to the customer experience therefore, which is driven principally through content customers access to self-serve, it is not just about the amount of information presented but how a customer can understand and use it. After all, there is a difference between finding an answer and understanding what it means.

Usability and utility of an interface design are paramount in keeping customers from leaving. Usability refers to how easy user interfaces are to use; utility refers to whether the interface provides the needed features. The five features of usability, according to Jakob Nielsen who is an authority on the subject, are:

  • Learnability: Ease of accomplishing basic tasks
  • Efficiency: How quickly users can perform said tasks
  • Memorability: How quickly users can reengage after a period of inactivity
  • Errors: Quantity, severity, and remedy of errors users ultimately make
  • Satisfaction: Pleasantness of the interface

While these principles refer to interface design overall, they can certainly relate to content usability as it is presented on a site, whether online or via mobile device:

“If a website is difficult to use, people leave. If the homepage fails to clearly state what a company offers and what users can do on the site, people leave. If users get lost on a website, they leave. If a website’s information is hard to read or doesn't answer users’ key questions, they leave…There’s no such thing as a user reading a website manual or otherwise spending much time trying to figure out an interface…leaving is the first line of defense when users encounter a difficulty.”

The same applies to content accessibility, relevance, usefulness, and speed of delivery. Smart content facilitates all of these through:

  • the semantic structure of microcontent, as well as
  • the algorithmic restructuring of as-yet unread related content in help center search results. 

Nielsen even touches on the unlikelihood of customers taking the time to read a manual to solve their problem, reinforcing the value of microcontent in resolving difficulty through easy-to-digest small bits of information customers can access on demand. Microcontent is also more easily disseminated online than user manuals in pre-internet files or PDFs and able to achieve better rankings in search engine result pages (SERPs), due to search engines’ preference for relevant, topic-level articles (see page 6).


Sources: Jakob Nielsen, Usability 101: Introduction to Usability, Nielsen Norman Group, January 4, 2012; Charles Duhigg, Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business (London: Random House Publishing Group), March 8, 2016, pp. 397–401; and Brian Dean, We Analyzed 1 Million Google Search Results. Here’s What We Learned About SEO, Backlinko, September 2, 2016; and Lee Fuller, What Is Microcontent and Why Is It Important? Flaunt Digital, May 9, 2016.

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