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What is usability engineering?

Last updated

21 June 2023

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People often assume that engineering focuses only on machines, computers, and other technical aspects. But engineering also has a human side. It seeks to understand who uses the product, what they use it for, and the environment where they use it. 

There’s a whole new field within engineering that specifically addresses human behavior, needs, and preferences to develop interactive systems that benefit the end user. 

Usability engineering (UE)—or human factor engineering (HFE)—is a multidisciplinary field that integrates engineering principles and human psychology to make interactive systems more intuitive and user-friendly. It leverages this understanding of human-computer interaction (HCI) in the design and development process to improve a product's efficiency and optimize the user experience.

What does a usability engineer do?

A usability engineer is a front-end developer who is highly skilled in scaling design systems and programming languages such as HTML, JavaScript, and CSS alongside frameworks such as React or Angular to be able to develop layouts and user interface (UI) components.

The specialist also needs to have knowledge of human-computer interaction (HCI) to be able to work with a product's intended users to better understand its design requirements and functionality. Therefore, building code-based prototypes and conducting usability testing are essential job tasks of the usability engineer. 

The role of the usability engineer is to improve the usability of interactive systems by fixing errors, missing links, bugs, confusing menu options, and hazardous interactions. The usability engineer also follows international standards to improve the usability of interactive systems and ensure the development of safe devices.

Usability engineers are most impactful in large companies where collaboration between designers and developers is a serious struggle. Usability engineers collaborate with various designers, other developers, and relevant stakeholders to iterate and enhance the user interface and interaction design. Their end goal is to ensure optimal user experience with the product or interaction system. 

Importance of usability engineering

Usability engineering plays a key role in the design and development process of products and interaction systems. Here are five key benefits of usability engineering:

1. Enhanced user satisfaction

Usability engineering focuses on usability to help make products more user-friendly, intuitive, and simple to navigate. This leads to increased user satisfaction, as people can effortlessly interact with the system, minimizing frustration and improving overall user experience. 

2. Increased efficiency and productivity

Usability engineering optimizes the design of user interfaces (UI) and workflows, making tasks more efficient and reducing the time required to complete them. Users can accomplish their goals more quickly and effectively, leading to improved productivity and workflow efficiency.

3. Minimized errors and user confusion

Usability engineering helps identify potential user errors and confusion points early in the design phase through usability tests and iterative design. By fixing glitches early on, a usability engineer can minimize errors and eliminate overall confusion with the final product.

4. Reduced training and support costs

When products are designed with users in mind, they require less training. This reduces the need for online support and help desk models after the product's launch

5. Competitive advantage

Usability engineering allows companies to differentiate themselves by providing a superior user experience. A well-designed, user-friendly product not only increases traffic, transactions, and conversion but also promotes brand loyalty and boosts customer satisfaction. All of which gives businesses a competitive edge.  

Methods of usability engineering

Usability engineering tests and optimizes designs at various different stages of the development process. Here are some of the various methods usability engineers can use to achieve a specific objective:

User research 

It’s vital to conduct qualitative and quantitative research to understand user needs, behaviors, and problems to help the product team create user-centered solutions.

Usability testing 

This involves getting feedback from representative users by observing them performing tasks to identify pain points, usability issues, and opportunities for improvement. 

Task analysis

This is a method to identify and analyze the tasks users perform within an interactive system. The information enables usability engineers to optimize workflows, minimize complexity, and improve task efficiency.

Heuristic evaluation 

Usability engineers use heuristics or guidelines to evaluate the usability of a product and identify problems during product development. Heuristic evaluation is mostly used to evaluate the usability of software applications, websites, and mobile applications.

Prototyping 

This is an experimental design process where design teams develop models or mockups of their ideas so users can provide feedback. These prototypes help usability engineers validate and refine their designs to release perfect final products.

Information architecture 

This is the method of structuring, organizing, and labeling content and data to make it easier to find and use. Usability engineers incorporate information architectures throughout their designs to provide users with the necessary information.

Interaction design 

This is the process of determining how users interact with a system and helps usability engineers know how to arrange user interfaces like buttons, menus, or forms to ensure seamless interaction.

Accessibility testing 

Usability engineers adhere to guidelines such as Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) to ensure that products provide equal access to all individuals, especially to those with specific impairments. 

Usability metrics and analytics 

Tracking and analyzing user behavior helps identify areas for optimization. The choice of metrics depends on the company’s goals, but generally speaking, the most popular data that teams track is task completion rate, error rates, and time on task.

Usability engineering lifecycle

The usability engineering lifecycle (UEL) can be used as a usability test plan when integrated into product development at the beginning of the cycle. It provides a testing regimen and rigorous analysis to help you achieve more from your usability design. 

The usability engineering lifecycle incorporates three phases:

Requirement analysis

In this phase, the team determines the users' characteristics and identifies what they will use the product or system for. They then set usability research objectives and establish the design guidelines.

Design, testing, and development

In this phase, the usability engineer develops a top-down structured approach to the product's design, be it the website, user interface, documentation, or all three. This phase requires a lot of feedback from the product team.

Installation and feedback

In this phase, the usability engineer gathers feedback from users after the product is installed and used for a while. This data is then shared with the project team so they can determine if the product requires any changes. 

The best tool for UX design

Selecting the best tool for usability design depends on project requirements, team requirements, and personal preferences. Some of the common usability design tools include Sketch, Axure RP, Figma, Adobe XD, and InVision. Usability engineers should use tools that work well with their specific workflows, professional preferences, project objectives, and company standards.

FAQs

What are the five key benefits of usability engineering?

Benefits include increased user satisfaction, efficiency, error minimization, reduced costs, and competitive advantage.

What is the difference between HCI and usability engineering?

Human-computer interaction (HCI) is a broad field that considers user behavior, cognitive processes, and social factors when humans interact with technology. On the other hand, usability engineering emphasizes the practical application of HCI principles to determine whether a system is effective, efficient, safe, and easy to use.

What is the difference between usability engineering and interaction design?

Usability engineering focuses on the usability and effectiveness of a product or interaction system by conducting user research and usability testing and applying principles from human-computer interaction (HCI). On the other hand, interaction design is concerned with designing the interactive elements and behaviors within a product or interactive system. 

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