What is Learnability?

There’s a very highly discussed term floating around the SaaS circles, and it seems to confuse a lot of people. You know what? I understand why, because of a persistent way of thinking that’s common among programming fields. So, what is learnability?

Persistent Views:

Well, it sounds like what it pretty much is. It’s the ability an average user would have for learning the software by hands on experience primarily. But, it also does pertain to actual training, and how easy to be trained on it, it is.

So, everyone should be concerned about learnability? Yes, absolutely. There’s a big push in the industry to design software so that it is entirely possible to learn just by poking at it deductively with little to no training.

This is achieved by understanding what common concepts are which people are familiar with, by terminology, menu system or control aesthetic. And, designing it so that doing things in the wrong order is not harmful in any way.

The counter to this, though, is that a common line of thinking is that training can solve any level of obfuscated and impregnable design. This is why things like 3D modeling software are so horribly impossible to learn and come to terms with.

This leads to people thinking making something learnable is only a frill, when in fact it is really important, in this increasingly digital world. More and more people are using software for everything, and that means making the software possible to come to terms with, and where training is needed, making the software so that the training isn’t difficult or tedious itself.


One of the biggest hurdles aside from people accepting it being important, is actually achieving the logistical difficulties it presents. Designing it to be easy to learn, yet capable of complex functions, while allowing haphazard experimentation to not cause critical failures severely is not easy.


One of the more interesting solutions around now is a unique tutorial creation system called an onboard program. These systems integrate into web forms, where they can watch users, correct mistakes, and prompt users from one step to the next, like a hands on tutor.

Integrating these into the software bridges this gap, by allowing the software to be somewhat complex, but with a framework to hand-hold the user through it and prevent those fatal mistakes.

Overcoming the hurdle of simple yet complex is much less of a struggle once you have an onboard guidance system like that to teach the user by doing. Software like this has revolutionized several other problematic ideas too, such as self service customer service, usability measurements and so on.

With software like this to make it easier, focusing on making your design learnable is not only a good idea, there’s absolutely no excuse not to put the effort into it.

So, what is learnability? Again, it’s exactly what it sounds like, and it’s far, far more important than you might initially think. It’s because of the volume of people who are waiting to use your software now, versus a time when some specialism allowed for harder to come to terms with designs.


Jessica is the Lead Author & Editor of UsabilityLab Blog. Jessica writes for the UsabilityLab blog to create a source for news and discussion about some of the issues, challenges, news, and ideas relating to usability.