Book Review: Usable Usability by Eric Reiss

Book Review: Usable Usability by Eric Reiss

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I get it, I get, Eric Reiss and Steve Krug are good friends. Why do they both have to write such fantastic, clear spoken (no BS) usability books? Alright, I’ll tone it down. I have a reputation for being too enthusiastic at times… ‘flamboyant’ some call it.

After having seen Eric Reiss present at the 2011 EuroIA in Prague, a mix between Tony Robbins and Richard Jeni, you couldn’t help but be entertained and enlightened at the same time. I didn’t expect anything less of his book.

Eric Reiss

Eric Reiss at Design by Fire 2011 Conference

Eric Reiss at Design by Fire 2011 Conference (Photo credit: Design by Fire Events)

Being the head-honcho over at FatDUX, an international user-experience design company headquartered in Copenhagen, Eric has been meddling with service- and product-design project for longer than he cares to remember.

For three years, when Eric was Professor of Usability and Design at the Instituto de Empresa Business School in Madrid, he taught the Master of Digital Marketing Program. In the introduction Eric states that what he shares in Usable Usability is pretty similar to what he taught in the program.

Students from the course were well on their way to conducting usability studies within six months of attending. I am confident that with Eric’s insights on board, even by just reading Usable Usability, anyone will be well on their way towards making positive changes to (online) product-design.

Usable Usability… The Book

Usable Usability by Eric Reiss
Let’s start with the bad. Maybe some of you are hoping that Eric’s book is fully focused on online usability. Let me burst that bubble for you… it’s not, but it has a purpose, so don’t be too dismayed.

Usable Usability tries to make you think (oh the irony when you’ve read Steve Krug’s book, but then again, we are the professionals) about all aspects of usability. Usability, when taken in its true form isn’t just a bingo word for the online community. It’s any every day, anywhere, any form thing. In the book Eric defines usability as follows:

Usability deals with an individual’s ability to accomplish specific tasks or achieve broader goals while “using” whatever it is you are investigating, improving, or designing – including services that don’t even involve a “thing” like a doorknob or web page.

Eric’s anecdote in the book that follows the quote puts it in layman’s terms.

If a car doesn’t work, functional usability is bad. If the car starts but is unsafe, unreliable, or merely uncomfortable, the car still has usability issues, albeit slightly more indirect. In all of these instances the usability of the car relates to our situational needs. That means our satisfaction with the experience affects the quality of the usability, too.

Two sides of the Usability coin

It is with this anecdote that Eric defines the purpose of the book. The book’s purpose is to show both sides of the usability coin. Ease of use on one side, and Elegance and Clarity on the other. Or put in another way:

  • Ease of User > Physical Properties – It does what I want it to do.
  • Elegance and Clarity > Psychological Properties – It does what I expect it to do.

The example to explain the psychological properties is one that is quite common to all of us, but maybe on a more subconscious level. If two Pizza parlors offer you the same pizza for the same price (all things being exactly equal), where the first pizza parlour nonchalantly greets you when you place an order, but the second pizza parlour acknowledges you personally and greets you by your name… where would you buy the pizza?

So even if there is no product to detect usability issues on/with, this is still a usability issue as satisfaction clearly affects your experience with a service. It is with this way of thinking that distinguishes the book’s teachings.

Ease of Use

Now, not to ruffle things to a conclusion, but let me quickly dive into the 2 parts into which the books is divided. The first part, about the physical properties of usability, covers 5 topics. Each topic comes filled with real world examples, funny anecdotes, great visuals, and of course Eric’s thoughts and insights on the issue at hand.

At the end of each topic, in both sections of the book, Eric offers us 4 actionable items/resources. The first one being an item called ‘Tales from the Trenches’ in which Eric shares a specific story (sometimes personal) about the topic. The second, we can’t leave these out any more, 10 tips on the topic. The last two are nice (especially since I am a book fiend), Other Books You Might Like and Things To Google. Thanks for the resources!

In part one, the 5 topics are:

  1. Functional
  2. Responsive
  3. Ergonomic
  4. Convenient
  5. Foolproof

Since I don’t want you spending all your time reading this blog post, while you could be reading Eric’s Usable Usability, I won’t go into the individual topics too much. Here is the watered down version.

When thinking Functional, the bottom line should be if something ‘works’ or if it ‘doesn’t’ work. The basis of any functional design.

In Responsive, Eric talks about the way that ‘stuff’ needs to respond, to input for instance. An example is given of 2 people in a conversation, one person talks, the other listens. It is at the end of the first person talking that the second person becomes responsive, gives acknowledgement. The second person responds to the action (speaking) of the first person, and a conversation is born.

The premise Eric shares with us is that Responsive should be a linear pattern, especially online, to keep the attention of the user:

  1. Action
  2. Acknowledgement
  3. New Action

However in conversation, when the acknowledgements (receipts) are not given, things can go wrong. Same thing online. When we don’t get proper receipts for our actions, we get confused and doubt the futility of the conversation, which could possibly be an online purchase. This is when doubt creeps in and could potentially cause the visitor to abandon the process all together.

With Ergonomics, the message that Eric tries to convey is simple. Is something easy to interact with. A hot topic these days with mobile for instance, is one that discusses the size of buttons. When you visit a website on a mobile device, are the buttons easy to click with your finger? Ergo… Ergonomics 😉

Convenient… this goes perfectly with Ergonomics. Not only should an interaction be easy to complete, but the interaction element, such as a button, should be placed conveniently (and contextually for that matter) where someone can/would use it. A great example is the placement of the ‘Next’ button in a form. If your form is aligned to the left, don’t place the ‘Next’ button to the right.

Blog Tip: 7 Basic Best Practices for Buttons by Caroline Jarrett

Foolproof… simple! Keep users out of dead ends, and prevent errors, provide friendly error messages, be helpful and offer clues, and be courteous.

Elegance and Clarity

In the second part, the psychological properties of usability, Eric covers another 5 topics.

This blog post is definitely getting long… so you know what, I’ll keep this even shorter and point you toward the give-away!

The topics in the second part are:

  1. Visible – I can actually see stuff.
  2. Understandable – I know what I’m looking at and get how it works.
  3. Logical – The stuff I see and the procedures I am asked to follow make sense.
  4. Consistent – The rules of the game won’t change on me unexpectedly.
  5. Predictable – When I do something, I have a clear idea what’s going to happen next.


On Amazon you can read some responses from readers saying the books is ‘simple’. I whole heartedly agree with that point of view. The books is therefore readable for everyone. With everyone, I mean stakeholders, managers and directors. They are the ones, more often then not, who need a wake up call into the powers of proper usability… both sides of Eric’s proverbial coin.

Should you by it? I would recommend you do. It is a great addition to your book collection and refreshing to read!

Read more about Usable Usability on Amazon

About Matthew Niederberger

Matthew works as Conversion Optimisation Manager at Ziggo BV. In his free time he enjoys family life as well as digging into online user research material whilst frequently generating some of his own, which he freely shares here on


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