Accounting for learnability in UX research

July 28, 2020

"Won't they just get used to it?"

This is a question we often hear from stakeholders and designers when evaluating a digital interface's usability. There's always going to be a learning curve when interacting with a website or app the first few times — but it's risky to assume everyone will get over it.

When conducting user experience (UX) research, it's essential to understand that even though people can learn and get used to something, we want to uncover whether they are willing to take the time to get used to it.

What is learnability?

Learnability is one of the qualities that contributes to an interface's usability. It takes into account how easily users can complete a task for the first time, how quickly they get better at the task after multiple uses, and the level of efficiency they reach after sufficiently learning the task. Learnable systems take less training for someone to use them, and they also make for more satisfying user experiences.

A learnability study is a quantitative research method that typically requires a larger sample size. It focuses on measuring two variables: the length of time it takes to complete a task and how many repetitions it takes to become efficient. This quantitative data is the best way to measure complex and frequently used tasks. However, learnability is an important aspect of almost any interface, and performing standard usability tests is still an effective method of evaluating it.

What's the harm in assuming learnability?

frustrating woman using a computerAssuming the learnability of a digital interface comes with risks. If you consider every interaction with your brand or service as a touchpoint on the customer journey, you'll want to make sure you deliver an intuitive and helpful experience — especially if your digital interface is the primary way people interact with your brand. Poor usability or a confusing process may prevent users from discovering an essential feature or create a negative brand perception. Some end users might not be invested enough to take the time to learn. Or worse, they might abandon your product or service for a competitor's if they are unsatisfied with the experience.

Even if some aspects are learnable, you don't want to put the burden of learning on your end-users. Part of creating an exceptional customer experience is doing what you can to ensure your customers find every interaction — even digital ones — seamless and satisfying.

When designing an interface, there are a few things to keep in mind to make it more learnable and usable.

  • Consider how and when the system will be used and present relevant information — and the amount of it — accordingly.
  • Add interaction design such as subtle color changes or animations to indicate the users' actions had an effect.
  • Be consistent with the design to create a cohesive experience and eliminate confusion.

Usability testing lets you gauge what could be learnable...

Although it does not deliver a quantitative measure of learnability, usability testing allows us to gauge how quickly a user can learn. This qualitative research method collects feedback to guide improvements to the design as well as decisions on when to sacrifice learnability. Moderators have the opportunity to probe participants and observe their reactions. If something is easily learnable, a participant might immediately recover after making an error on a task or say something like "I get that now" or "That makes sense" during the session.

...and what's not learnable

There are some design elements that users might never find intuitive, even after onboarding or several interactions. Usability testing gives us an idea of what those things are and a sense of the breaking point for users. Be on the lookout for indications an element of the design could be an ongoing and unlearnable issue, like:

  • Frustration in participants’ voices or body language
  • Multiple people encountering the issue
  • Someone trying something a few times in a single session and still being unable to learn
  • Comments like "I don't know what to do from here" or "I'd just give up at this point"

Testing sessions tend to be longer than users will spend in real life. If something isn't clicking in the session, it's likely to be a UX issue for everyday users.

Be aware of your own biases

As with any usability test, it's important to remember that you, your stakeholders, your designers, and your end-users aren't the same. Your internal team, and even your usability testing moderators, have spent far more time interacting with the platform than your end-users. You’ll have a deeper understanding of how it works. If a testing participant confirms a hypothesis you had going into the testing session, continue to probe them for details on why or what prompted them to give that feedback. You don't want your opinions — whether positive or negative — to bias the conclusions you draw from research sessions.

Test usability, improve learnability

The learnability of a user interface is not only important in usability but also in customer experience. Assuming users will acclimate to your website, digital platform, or mobile app may harm customer loyalty and satisfaction. Usability testing will reveal how easy it is for users to navigate a system and provide feedback on where to improve. Contact us to take the first step towards a better user experience.