UX Core Aspect: Usefulness

So … What does Usefulness mean in terms of UX Design?

As defined by the book: “Handbook of Usability Testing: How to Plan, Design, and Conduct Effective Tests”

Usefulness (dictionary) — able to be used for a practical purpose or in several ways.

Usefulness (in terms of UX) — the degree to which a product enables a user to achieve his or her goals or tasks.

It may seem overly-obvious to talk about Usefulness in terms of UX, because on the surface it seems so obviously important that it’s like pointing out that Water is Wet. And yet, we’ve all still encountered things that make us scratch our heads and wonder “why would someone ever need to design something like this?”.

There are two sides to this coin. The first, being the concept of a tool/product/software itself. Is the core concept of the thing useful in theory? The second being execution. How small is the gap between what it could be vs what it is?

Step Zero: Determining the Usefulness 💪🏻 of a Tool

Wether or not something is useful is actually pretty binary. Having a hammer to a nail is either useful or it’s not.

Wether or not you’ve found the right hammer to a nail is how to determine usefulness. Usefulness is straightforward.

It is a simple concept, though due to how the tech industry provides a plethora of conflicting and confusing information about core UX concepts, making sure we have clear definitions is vital to being able to grasp and comprehend concepts.

You need to understand these concepts so well that you can not only explain them to other people, but have other people “get it” on a fundamental level through all of the layers of abstraction the internet puts between you and the user.

Usefulness ≠ Usability and Here’s Why

You might have thought of these two as the same exact thing, but I promise we’re not splitting hairs here. There’s a method to the madness.

Usefulness is the intent of a software, and Usability is the execution of that software.

A product can be useful without being usable.

For example, a jar of tomato sauce. In theory, this is a useful object. It contains tomato sauce that can be used on various foods. That is useful.

However, if the jar is closed so tightly that I can’t open it, it is also unusable. Useful, without being useable. This is the most common and straightforward disconnect between you and your UX goals. Good and useful ideas are merely seeds that must be carefully tended in order to grow.

This is the difference between being “just an ideas guy” and “actually getting things done”.

Why Usefulness and Value are Not the Same

Value is deeply tied to context in UX. A hammer might be useful, but only to people who need a hammer. A thing can be useful to everyone, while being valuable to only a subset of people. Usefulness in this regard, should not be confused with Value. “Can you do this task?” is usefulness/utility, and “How much is this task worth?” is value. We always seek to deliver the maximum value possible, and words are important so we should learn to be clear with our semantics.

When talking about something and trying to determine if you’re looking at value vs usefulness, try and frame your sentences like this:

For determining usefulness

[blank] is useful for doing [blank].
A [lighter] is useful for [starting a fire].
A [spice rack] is useful for [organizing spices].
A [hammer] is useful for [hitting a nail].
A [bow and arrow] is useful for [impairing an object with an arrow form a distance].

For determining value

[blank] is useful to [blank] group because it helps them solve the problem of [blank].
A [lighter] is useful to [people who are stuck in the wilderness] to solve the problem of [making it through a cold night].
A [spice rack] is useful to [cooks] because it helps them solve the problem of [dis-organization].
A [hammer] is useful to [construction workers] to solve the problem of [constructing a building].
A [bow and arrow] is useful to [hunters] because it helps them solve the problem of [catching prey].

Usefulness defines a task that can be completed. Value defines the ability to alleviate pain points for groups of people. We’re talking about what it does, vs who would benefit most from what it does.

Useful = ✅ Does a thing.

Valuable = ✅ Does the thing I need to solve a problem.

You can do a thing and be useful, but to be valuable you must be solving a problem.

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