Design Vocabulary: Discoverability

Unlike the word findability, which I covered last week, discoverability can be found in the dictionary as “The quality of being discoverable.” Also unlike findability, it doesn’t have its own Wikipedia entry, but instead is included as a section under usability. This section doesn’t really explain discoverability, asking questions that are more about learnability, which I’ll address another day. 

So if Wikipedia is no help, and the dictionary only states the obvious, where can we find a relevant definition of the word? I found a deck on SlideShare posted three years ago called Designing for Discoverability by Steve Mulder and Joanne McLernon of Molecular. Just as my discussion that touched off this series on design vocabulary, they define it in contrast to findability.

Findability = the quality of a known item to be locatable on a web site

Discoverability = the quality of a known or unknown item to be noticeable on a web page

They are drawing a distinct line here between the two. Findability is about searching for something within the scope of an entire site (or other body of content, like the entire web), while discoverability is about noticing something within the scope of a single page (or screen). They go on to list the components of discoverability:

  • Position
  • Context
  • User Expectations & Conventions
  • Design
  • Text & Labeling

Design is further broken down into:

  • Real Estate & Size
  • Visual Miscommunication
  • Color & Imagery
  • Typography
  • Animation

That all makes sense to me, but if we’re going to accept this dichotomy, we need more evidence of its general acceptance within the UX community. Scott Berkun, author and speaker, wrote an essay in August of 2003 titled The myth of discoverability, in which he begins by stating that “Discoverability is often defined as the ability for a user of a design to locate something that they need, in order to complete a certain task.” After dispelling the myth that a good user interface makes everything extremely discoverable, Scott goes on to explain how you decide what to make discoverable, the difference between discoverable and discovered, and how you make something discoverable. He has his own, quite similar list:

  • Real Estate
  • Order
  • Expectation & Flow
  • Consistency

More recently, in March of 2011, Suzanne Ginsburg, consultant and author, published an article in UX Magazine titled The Evolution of Discoverability. Her definition is near identical to Scott’s: “the ability for users to locate something they need to complete a certain task.” Suzanne takes an inventory of strategies for improving discoverability as found in iPad apps.

Given the evidence, I think Dan Saffer’s postulate is correct. Findability is regarding content, while discoverability is regarding functionality. 

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