Usability Glossary

Accessibility is a prerequisite to usability. If a person can not access a web page he certainly can not use it. Accessibility refers to web page information/content being obtainable and functional to largest possible audience. It is about providing access to information for those who would otherwise lose their opportunity to use the web. In contrast inaccessible means unobtainable, nonfunctional.
Affinity Diagram
Affinity diagramming is a categorization method where users sort various concepts into several categories. This method is used by a team to organize a large amount of data according to the natural relationships between the items. Basically, you write each concept on a Post-It note and tack them onto a wall. Team members move the notes to groups based on how they feel the concept belongs with other concepts.


Blind Voting
Blind voting is when everyone participating in a voting session cannot view the votes of other participants, until all votes have been cast. It is a way for groups to vote on issues without the votes influencing others. Blind voting is often implemented as an electronic meeting system.
Bread crumbs
Bread crumbs are a type of web navigation where current location within the website is indicated by a list of pages above the current page in the hierarchy, up to the main page. It not only shows users where they are currently located in the site’s architecture, but it also lets them back up levels one at a time. It is a recursive path.


Card Sorting
Card sorting is a categorization method where users sort cards depicting various concepts into categories. You start with a list of all the items you want sorted. Write down each item on a separate index card. Give your user(s) the stack of cards and have them divide the cards up into piles, telling them that the cards should be grouped the way they (the users) best see fit. This technique is best used in the early stages of development.
Cascading Style Sheets (CSS)
Style sheets refer to a set of rules that allow you to control how you would like your document to be rendered. It is a mechanism for primarily to separate presentation from content. With the HTML and style sheets approach, structured content goes into the HTML document, and the appearance, or presentation information goes into a style sheet. CSS allow you to control the rendering of elements on a web page without compromising its structure. Prior to CSS, nearly all of the presentational attributes of an HTML document were contained within the HTML code; all font colors, background styles, alignment specification, boxes, borders, and sizes had to be explicitly described, often repeatedly, in the midst of the HTML code. CSS allows web designers to extract this information, resulting in considerably simpler HTML code, supplemented by an auxiliary style sheet written in the language of CSS. The structure and semantic markup is restricted to the HTML code, while the presentational markup is restricted to the CSS code.
Chunking is the way that the brain deals with complexity. Humans short term memory can retain, at most, only about 7±2 things at one time according to George A. Miller.
“Click here”
The phrase “click here” is a bad linking practice. It makes navigating the web difficult for both sighted and unsighted users. Link text should be meaningful enough to make sense when read out of context.
Color Contrast
Color contrast refers to how close hues are in value. The human eye requires good contrast for visibility and legibility. Contrast creates visual interest and helps deliver accurate information. It can make a big difference on a web page. Colors that are close in value tend to blur together, and their borders “melt.” This can create legibility problems. For example, black text on a dark blue background is difficult to read.
Color Deficiency
Color deficiency is a lack of the ability to discriminate between colors. Designs that rely totally on color to convey essential information will be inaccessible to a small percentage of women and a larger percentage of men.
Color Saturation
Color saturation refers to the intensity of a color.
Cognitive Walkthrough
A cognitive walkthrough is a review technique where you construct task scenarios from a specification and get a user to role play the part of walking through the task. They act as if the interface was actually built and they (in the role of a typical user) was working through the tasks. Each step the user would take is scrutinize.
Consistency is the quality of an interface when it behaves in ways users expect. It means that users can apply the knowledge obtained in some previous experience to enhance current performance.
Consistency Inspection
Consistency inspections ensure consistency across multiple sub-sites from the same development effort. For example, in lower level pages, common functions should look and work the same.
Contextual Inquiry
Contextual inquiry is a structured field interviewing method. It involves conversation as well as observation. Contextual inquiries requires a high degree of skill from the usability specialist, in order to ask appropriate questions without interrupting the participants’ work flow or influencing their responses. Sometimes two usability specialists are used for a contextual inquiry project, one to conduct the interview, and one to observe and record participant behavior. You can discover unmet needs and understand existing behaviors in greater depth with this method.


Deep Linking
Deep links are links that go directly to an inner page of a website rather than the homepage. It enables direct linking to highly appropriate and specific content.
Device Independence
For web content to be device independent, it should be possible for a user to obtain a functional presentation associated with its web page identifier via any access mechanism.
A deprecated element or attribute is one that has been outdated by newer constructs. Deprecated elements may become obsolete in future versions of HTML. Authors should avoid using deprecated elements and attributes. The W3C recommends in Checkpoint 11.2 that deprecated elements and attributes not be used, mostly because they force styles and design upon a user instead of using style sheets that allow a user to override the default style. A listing of deprecated elements and attributes can be found at: and
A DOCTYPE is a means of specifying what syntax a web page uses. Include a document type declaration at the beginning of a document that refers to a published DTD (e.g., the strict HTML 4.0 DTD). The document type declaration should be appropriate to the markup language you are using. It should appear at the very beginning of an HTML document in order to identify the content of the document as conforming to a particular HTML DTD specification.


Electronic and Information Technology (EIT)
This term encompasses any of a number of devices and device types. It is basically any device or technology that uses electronic means to transmit and present information to the user. Examples include Computers, PDAs, cell phones, information kiosks, televisions, and many other devices.
An eyetracking device observes a person’s pupil to determine the direction of their gaze. It can aid in learning the relative intensity of a user’s attention to various parts of a web page.


Feature Inspection
Feature inspections analyze only the feature set of a site, usually given end user scenarios for the end result to be obtained from the use of the website. For example, a scenario for the training site would be to register for a workshop. The features that would be used are navigating to the workshop site, selecting a class, adding it to their shopping cart, filling out the registration form, and pressing the submit button. Each set of features used to produce the required output (a registration) is analyzed for its availability, understandability, and general usefulness.
Field Observation (Ethnographic Study)
Field observation is simply observing users at their work using your website. Observing them in their own environment may help pinpoint problems that you might not think of in your own office or even in a testing lab. However, even though a skilled observer can be subtle, the very nature of the observation process will likely change the way the user works.
Focus groups
Focus groups are formal, structured events where you directly interact with users, asking them to voice their opinions and experiences regarding a website.
Formal Usability Inspection
This evaluation method formalizes the review of a specification or early prototype. The basic steps are to assemble a team of four to eight inspectors, assign each a special role in the context of the inspection, distribute the design documents to be inspected and instructions, have the inspectors go off on their own to do their inspection, and convene later in a formal inspection meeting. Defects found are assigned to responsible parties to be fixed, and the cycle continues.
Front Door
The first page of a website.


Granularity is the extent to which a larger piece of information has been broken down into smaller units.
Graphical user interface. It is pronounced “GOOEY”.
Guideline Checklists
Guidelines and checklists help ensure that usability principles will be considered in a design. Usually, checklists are used in conjunction with a usability inspection method: the checklist gives the inspectors a basis by which to compare the product. has a good set of Research Based Web Design and Usability Guidleines.


HCI stands for “Human Computer Interaction.” It is the study of how people relate to electronic tools and interfaces.
Heuristic (Expert) Evaluation
Heuristic evaluation is where a group of usability experts scrutinize a website and evaluate each element of the site against a list of commonly accepted principles or rules of thumb. They apply their training and experience to conduct independent evaluations. Research shows that such evaluations can identify a majority of the usability problems, with the problem-identification percentage increasing as evaluators are added. The major drawback of heuristic evaluation is that evaluators, regardless of their skill and experience, remain surrogate users (expert evaluators who emulate users) and not necessarily typical users of the product.
Hierarchy is a top down organizational structure.
Horizontal Scrolling
Horizontal scrolling is scrolling sideways within a web browser’s window. When a site has content that is wider than the browser window, users must scroll horizontally to see it. Horizontal scrolling should be avoided if possible. It’s awkward to do and users hate it.
Hue is the name of a distinct color of the spectrum (e.g. red, green, yellow, orange, blue). It is the particular wavelength frequency.
HyperText Markup Language (HTML)
The markup language that is used on most of the World Wide Web to create web pages. The standards for HTML are controlled by the W3C.


Information Architect
A person who organizes inherent patterns in data to make complexities clear. He or she uncovers patterns and relationships and then structures content allowing users to find paths to knowledge.
Information Architecture
Information architecture is the organization of information. This field studies how to organize information most effectively to help people find and use the information. It also refers to the structure or organization of a website, especially how pages relate to one another.
Inquiry is a broad category of usability evaluation methods. It is part one of the “Usability Evaluation Toolbox”. With inquiry methods usability evaluators obtain information about users’ likes, dislikes, needs, and understanding of the system by talking to them, observing them using the system in real work (not for the purpose of usability testing), or letting them answer questions verbally or in written form. Numerous methods exist for doing inquiries.
Inspection is a broad category of usability evaluation methods. It is part two of the “Usability Evaluation Toolbox”. In the inspection approach, usability specialists, users and other professionals examine usability related aspects of a user interface. Numerous methods exist for doing inquiries.
Inverted pyramid
The inverted pyramid is a type of writing style where conclusions are presented first not last. It begins with a conclusion then moves to the key information followed by background information. Usability studies show that web users want instant gratification. That is why the inverted pyramid style is important. For more information see: Inverted Pyramids in Cyberspace by Jakob Nielsen.


Journaled Sessions
Journaled sessions are where users conduct usability tests in remote locations. Users perform several tasks with the prototype, much as in formal usability tests, and their actions are captured with the journalizing software. Actual actual mouse movements or interactions with dialog boxes and menu items are captured.


Labels are the names and terms used throughout a website that identify menu options, site categories or other elements.
Legibility indicates how clear text is visually.
Likert scale
A likert scale is a type of question where respondents are asked to rate the level at which they agree or disagree with a statement. For instance on a scale from one to five a user can strongly disagree or strongly agree with a statement.
Link Rot
Link rot is the degeneration of a web page due to the links that becomes invalid.
Lorem Ipsum
Lorem Ipsum or Lipsum is random text. It is a common piece of garble that designers use as mock-content when testing layouts. It has been well established that if you write anything in a sample layout or design, people will spend more time reading the copy than looking at the full concept. “Lorem ipsum dolor” is sufficiently like ordinary text to show “text goes here” but it doesn’t distract the reader.
Liquid Design
A liquid designed web page re-scales to fit different resolutions and different window sizes.
Local Navigation
Local navigation is a type of navigation where choices lead to subtopics defined by one of the main menu subjects.
Look and Feel
Look and feel is the visual appearance that identifies a web site. It is comprised of a consistent color scheme, layout, typography, design treatments and graphic elements – all of which should work in harmony.


A textual description of data that provides information about the data type.
Using a computer to present multiple types of media simultaneously, in an integrated manner. These can include sound, graphics, video, text, animation, or any other form of information representation.

Up to Index


Navigation is the process of finding things in large or complex information spaces, such as on websites. Its purpose is to a help users find the content they want quickly. There are many navigation methods to make a website easy to navigate.
Negative Space – See White Space.


One-way mirror
One-way mirror is a a piece of glass that is a mirror on one side but can be seen through from the other side. One-way mirrors are sometimes used in usability testing or focus groups so that observers may watch the session without being distracting or disruptive.


Paper prototype
A paper prototype is a paper sketch of an interface with just enough detail to make design decisions and usability evaluations relating to the function and flow of the interface, not the look.
Pluralistic Walkthrough
Pluralistic walkthroughs are when groups of users, developers, and usability experts walk through a task scenario. Group walkthroughs have the advantage of providing a diverse range of skills and perspectives to bear on usability problems. As with any inspection, the more people looking for problems, the higher the probability of finding problems. Also, the interaction between the team during the walkthrough helps to resolve usability issues faster.
Primary Navigation
Primary navigation is the general menu choices that are repeated on most (if not all) of the pages contained in the site. It is sometimes called the main menu. Primary navigation is sometimes referred to as global navigation or functional navigation. Primary navigation bars provide shortcuts to main sections on a website.
A prototype is a partially completed mockup of your final website. Prototyping allows you to test certain parts of the final website, especially when it is incomplete. With many sites, this model can be as simple as paper-and-pencil drawings or as complex as actual working code.


Questionnaires are written lists of questions that you distribute to your users. Questionnaires differ from surveys in that they are written lists, not ad hoc interviews, and as such require more effort on the part of your users to fill out the questionnaire. Often, questionnaires are used after sites are launched to assess customer satisfaction with the product. Such questionnaires often identify usability issues that should have been caught before the site goes live. Questionnaires are an inexpensive way of gathering a great deal of information from a large number of users. Most of the cost involved is in designing (or printing, if it’s offline) the questionnaire.


Rapid Prototyping
Rapid prototyping is the process of quickly generating mock-ups of what a website will look like.
Readability is the degree to which the meaning of text is understandable, based on the complexity of sentences and the difficulty of vocabulary. Indexes for readability usually rank usability by the age or grade level required for someone to be able to readily understand a reading passage.
Relative Sizing
Relative sizing is scalable. It is the opposite of absolute sizing. For usability and accessibility it is better to use relative rather than absolute sized units 1.


Scanning is the process of skimming text and picking out keywords, sentences and paragraphs while skipping over other parts of a web page. People tend to scan web pages rather than read them word by word. Use headlines, bullets, lists and frequent paragraph breaks for items you wish to highlight. These elements will grab a user’s attention during a quick scan.
Screen Snapshots
Snapshots are a method where the user takes screen snapshots at different times during the execution of a task or series of tasks. Like most user testing, you provide the user with the site and have him or her perform various user tasks with on it. In addition, you provide the user with a snapshot program and instructions for when and how to take the screen snapshots. This technique is best used in the early to middle stages of development, when you have some working site to be evaluated but are not to the point of requiring full testing. Snapshots are most often used in conjunction with other remote inquiry methods, such as journaled sessions or self-reporting logs.
See Web Standards.
Self-reporting Logs
Self-reporting logs are paper-and-pencil journals in which users are requested to log their actions and observations while interacting with a product. Like journaled sessions, this technique allows you to perform user evaluation at a distance.
Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML)
SGML is a standard for how to specify a document markup language. It is a meta language because it is used to define markup languages. SGML is not in itself a document language, but a description of how to specify one. It is is based on the idea that documents have structural and other semantic elements that can be described without reference to how such elements should be displayed. The actual display of such a document may vary, depending on the output medium and style preferences.
Standards Inspection
Standards inspections ensure compliance with industry standards. In such inspections, a usability professional with extensive knowledge of the standard analyzes the elements of the product for their use of the industry standard (compliance with University Standards, W3C specifications, etc).
A storyboard is a sequence of sketches showing major actions or outlining a process, such as the steps of interacting with a computer or website. They are commonly used in television and advertising. They are akin to paper prototyping. They are useful for presentations and for checking that the steps of a process make sense once the details are sketched.
The information components within an HTML document. For instance: headings, lists and paragraphs.
Style Sheets
See Cascading Style Sheets and Extensible Stylesheet Language.
Surveys are ad hoc interviews with users, where a set list of questions is asked and the users’ responses recorded. Surveys differ from questionnaires in that they are interactive interviews, although not structured like contextual inquiries nor formally scheduled and organized like focus group.


Tag Soup
Tag soup is improper use of HTML, header tags, blockquotes, overlapping constructs. It is markup that looks like SGML markup but the creator didn’t know or respect SGML rules for the HTML vocabulary. In effect a soupy collection of text and markup. Presentational markup like <font> <i> <b> are visual styles and therefore not semantic. They are ingredients in tag soup. <i> <b> disappear in XHTML 2.0. They are deprecated. A more semantic tag and CSS should replace any physical style tag that has no semantic meaning.
Task Scenario
A task scenario is a representation of actual work that a user would likely perform using a website. You use task scenarios to tell the participants of a usability test what you want them to do.
Taxonomy is the study of the general principles of scientific classification. Information architects use this word to refer to labeling systems and nomenclature of things like the sections of a website.
See Usability Testing.
Thinking Aloud Protocol
Thinking aloud is when users speak out their thoughts, feelings, and opinions while they are performing an assigned task. Thinking aloud helps you understand how users use a website and what considerations users keep in mind when using it. Thinking aloud gives insight into cognitive processes.
Typography is the balance and interplay of letterforms on a web page. It helps the user understand the form and absorb the substance of the page content. It is important in both visual and verbal communication.


Universal Access
The idea that all things (on the Internet) should be accessible by the largest audience possible, regardless of disability, location, device, or speed of connection to the Internet. It is the ability of everyone, regardless of age, nationality, disability, or any other factor, to access and take advantage of a website.
Universal Design
Designing for the largest audience possible regardless of disability or ability to speak the native language. This is a process rather than an end in itself.
Usability is the art and science of designing systems or web sites that are easy to learn, easy to remember how to use, efficient to use, error tolerant and engaging. Usability and accessibility are often confused. Some believe that a usable site is accessible and vice versa. The two are not exclusive, but it is important to understand the difference. Usability means that a website is intuitive and easy to use. Accessibility means a website is as barrier-free as possible. Accessibility and usability are closely related, as they both improve satisfaction, effectiveness, and efficiency of the generic user population. But while accessibility is aimed at making the website open to a much wider user population, usability is aimed at making the target population of the website happier, more efficient, more effective.
Usability Lab
A usability lab is a facility specifically for user testing. It can be portable or fixed and may vary widely in how it is equipped. It is usually a quiet room with computer equipment and a place for an observer to sit, along with a special observation area (possibly behind a one-way mirror), and equipment for videotaping. Computers in a usability lab are also often set up with logging software to capture user keystrokes and mouse movements and with scan converters, used to videotape computer screens.
Usability Testing
Usability testing is the process of carrying out experiments to find out specific information about a design. It is part three of the “Usability Evaluation Toolbox”. In usability testing, representative users work on typical tasks using the website (or a prototype) and the evaluators use the results to see how the user interface supports the users in doing their tasks.
User agent
Software to access web content, including desktop graphical browsers, text browsers, voice browsers, mobile phones, multimedia players, plug-ins, and some software assistive technologies used in conjunction with browsers such as screen readers, screen magnifiers, and voice recognition software.
User Centered Design (UCD)
The design process that places the user at the center of the design rather than the object to be designed. It is a philosophy and process rather than an end in itself.
User Interface Markup Language (UIML)
Unlike many markup languages, UMIL is not used to describe documents, rather it is used to describe elements on the page such as buttons, menu lists, and other page elements generally used in graphical user interfaces. It is used to define their placement on the page, and the actions to be taken when certain events such as mouse clicks, or keystrokes occur.


Valid HTML
A web page or HTML document is considered valid when it complies with World Wide Web Consortium HTML recommendations. To verify that a HTML document validates to formal published grammars and meets the standard use the W3C HTML Validator . A document type declaration at the beginning of a document that refers to a published DTD is required as well as only the use of elements defined in that DTD. For more information see validation.


W3C Recommendation
A standard agreed upon by the web industry and community represented in the World Wide Web Consortium.
Wayfinding devices
Wayfinding devices are more than signs. They facilitate journeying from point A to point B. They are cues, flows, affordances etc.
Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI)
Started by W3C and its members in 1997, this initiative addresses web accessibility issues. Visit the WAI site for more information.
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)
These are the guidelines built by the W3C/WAI to address issues in building accessible web pages. Visit the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 site and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 site for more information.
A website is a related group of web pages published on the World Wide Web.
Web Standards
The term Web Standards refers to the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) specifications and guidelines. Complying with web standards is using technologies like valid XHTML and CSS according to W3C specifications. It is the only way to know that code won’t fail as the syntax develops.The validation to web standards allows for future web compatibility. Most assistive and adaptive technologies are based on W3C standards. Error-free, well-formed, standards-compliant HTML is the foundation of an accessible Web site. Standards compliance is an essential ingredient for a higher level of accessibility, portability platform independence, conversion to XML, reusablity and forward compatibility. However, be aware that in itself valid XHTML and CSS, does not guarantee that a page is semantically meaningful, structurally sound, or accessible. Valid XHTML and CSS is the base to start from. Semantically rich, well structured, accessible documents that validate are the goal. Following standards, especially in terms of creating structured, valid markup and removing presentational elements and attributes makes a document inherently more accessible. The future of the web as laid out by the World Wide Web Consortium is based on two underlying concepts. These two concepts are the heart of Web Standards. They are:

  1. Separating content and presentation.
  2. Semantically meaningful markup (Good document structure).
White Space
White space, also known as negative space, is the open space between visual elements on a web page. The term describes the unused areas. White space gives the eye rest. Cluttered designs hinder clarity and tire the eye. Judicial placement of white space can emphasis page elements and help to direct the eye.
Wireless Application Protocol (WAP)
A specification that allows users to access information via wireless handheld devices. These devices usually have small screens.
A wireframe is a skeleton version of a website that depicts navigational concepts and page content. It is is a set of cross-linked pages that acts like a functional prototype of the final website without the graphics. It is often with only sketchy text content. It is often accompanied by a tree diagram or flowchart of the website. It doesn’t take into account visual design or page layout.
World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)
An international consortium of companies and organizations involved with the Internet and the World Wide Web, responsible for maintaining web technology standards, such as HTML and CSS. Visit the W3C site for more information.


Extensible Hypertext Markup Language (XHTML)
This is a reformation of HTML as an XML vocabulary. This is a good idea, as it eliminates a lot of the problems that arose from the existence of proprietary or badly coded HTML, because it must now follow the strict rules of XML. The ultimate goal of using XHTML is to separate display/presentation tags from the document data/structure and to use the elements as they were meant to be used. The key change to make, is separating presentation from content.
Extensible Markup Language (XML)
A language specification from the W3C that allows users to develop their own markup languages (often called vocabularies), and format their documents using stylesheets to be presented on a browser if desired. XML has a very strict set of rules that must be adhered to, allowing lots of control over document format. XML is most useful, however, as a completely language and platform agnostic data format.
Extensible Style Language (XSL)
XSL is a W3C specification that contains 3 parts. Extensible Stylesheet Language Transformations (XSLT) for changing the formatting and structure of markup according to a set of rules, Extensible Stylesheet Language Formatting Objects (XSL-FO) for applying a strong set of rules to a document to ensure reliable formatting when printed, and XPath to select the elements required by an XSLT.
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