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Using the 5Es to understand users

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How do you move from wanting to improve the usability of your web site, product or software to taking action?

Let's start with this: If the answer is usability, what is the question?

Once we have defined the problem, the best approach to solving this problem often becomes obvious. To answer these questions, we need to understand how usability is defined for this product and the people who use it. Simply saying that it is not "user friendly" does not help suggest a solution-and the true goal of all usability work is to provide actionable recommendations for how to improve the final product.

One of the exercises I find helpful is to look at usability requirements for different aspects of the user experience. For each of the five dimensions of usability (the 5Es), we think about how it is reflected in requirements for each of the user groups. The 5Es are:

  • Diagram of the 5Es in balance Effective: How completely and accurately the work or experience is completed or goals reached
  • Efficient: How quickly this work can be completed
  • Engaging: How well the interface draws the user into the interaction and how pleasant and satisfying it is to use
  • Error Tolerant: How well the product prevents errors and can help the user recover from mistakes that do occur
  • Easy to Learn: How well the product supports both the initial orientation and continued learning throughout the complete lifetime of use

What emerges from this exercise is an understanding of what usability means in this context, and how the five dimensions must be balanced. Depending on the situation, some dimensions are always more important than others. For example, a call center representative's workstation may need to help them work efficiently, and be so easy to learn that little training is required In another context, it may be more important that the application be engaging and error tolerant.

Doing this exercise is a good way to bring together assumptions and knowledge about the users, but it may also reveal gaps. Are there users you don't really know? Do different team members have conflicting ideas about what users need? These gaps are signs that you need to start your program with some user analysis. You need to do some site visits, user interviews, and observations of people as they work to gather this knowledge. And that's your first action - learning about who your users are, their tasks and their goals in using your product.

Once you have a clear picture of your users and their usability requirements, the next question is whether your product meets those needs. The best way to find this out is to watch people actually using the product. Just asking their opinion can be valuable, but you will learn more about the problems - and how to fix them -- if you see them happening. Better yet, with video tapes everyone on the team can see where users have problems, and help decide on the best solution.

The 5Es are helpful in planning your usability testing, because each suggests specific techniques:

  • Effective: Watch for the results of each task, and see how often they are done accurately and completely. Look for problems like information that is skipped or mistakes that are made by several users.
  • Efficient: Time users as they work to see how long each task takes to complete. Look for places where the screen layout or navigation make the work harder than it needs to be.
  • Engaging: Watch for signs that the screens are confusing, or difficult to read. Look for places where the interface fails to draw the users into their tasks. Ask questions after the test to see how well they liked the product and listen for things that kept them from being satisfied with the experience
  • Error Tolerant: Create a test in which mistakes are likely to happen, and see how well users can recover from problems and how helpful the product is. Count the number of times users see error messages and how they could be prevented.
  • Easy to Learn: Control how much instruction is given to the test participants, or ask experienced users to try especially difficult, complex or rarely-used tasks. Look for places where the on-screen text or work flow helps…or confuses them

So your second action is to go out and watch people - real people, who would really use it - using your product. You may be pleasantly surprised by how much you can learn in a short time. You can fix problems before you release, when making changes gets expensive.

Usability starts with a philosophy - a belief in designing to meet user needs and to focus on creating an excellent user experience - but it is the specific process and methodology that produce the real goal of usability. A new usability process starts by looking at who uses a product, understanding their goals and needs, and selecting the right techniques to answer the question, "How well does this product meet the usability requirements of our users?"




The 5 E's of Use help us visualize the balance of needs for each dimension of usability and guides design choices.


More about the 5Es

Content and Complexity cover image

"Dimensions of Usability" is a chapter in a new book, Content and Complexity, from Erlbaum, 2003

Balancing the 5Es
Using the 5Es in a UCD process (Cutter IT Journal - February 2004)
平衡5E:可用性 (Translation)

Understanding Usability: Getting Beyond "Ease of Use"
A presentation to AIGA Colorado

Dimensions of Usability: Opening the Conversation, Driving the Process - Using the 5Es to provoke and manage conversations on the meaning of usability. (UPA 2003)

What Does Usability Mean: Looking Beyond ‘Ease of Use - an early paper defining the 5Es (STC 2001)

Being user centered about user-centered design looks at ways to apply usability guidelines to a implementing a new process.

Presentation from a UK-UPA meeting on Dimensions of Usability that looked at the 5Es as an advocacy tool.

Software Usability: Strategies
for Meeting Business Goals and Users' Needs

"Balancing the 5Es of Usablity"
A Cutter Consortium Report - Available in print or PDF

Related articles

Heuristics to Evaluate Online Help by Donn DeBoard uses the 5Es in Usability Interface

Usability Analysis by C.H. Arun Prabu in Developer IQ


Would you like a presentation or workshop on the 5Es at your company? Contact me at whitneyq@wqusability.com