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Usable Usability?

The term usability has caused me a bit of a translator’s headache recently. After just a few minutes of research, I discovered I was not the only one. What a nuisance it has been to the Polish IT-crowd and linguists! You just need to look it up online and bang! you have just walked into a mine field of self-righteous blog posts, snide comments and endless forum threads.

Do I even dare to join the discussion?

The Wikipedia definition of usability in English is the following:

Usability is a term used to denote the ease with which people can employ a particular tool or other human-made object in order to achieve a particular goal. Usability can also refer to the methods of measuring usability and the study of the principles behind an object’s perceived efficiency or elegance.

Let’s get an overview of possible/existing translations of the term ‘usability’ into Polish:

użyteczność – the most widely used Polish translation of the term is strictly speaking incorrect. It is a loan translation from English which entered the IT jargon before linguists managed to get to it! It translates back as “usefulness” or “practicality”, which is not equivalent to the ease of use that the real ‘usability’ offers.

Jakob Nielsen's vote - No!

funkcjonalność – being fit for purpose – we are getting warmer – however, this term has already been taken to denote “having many functions” – the English equivalent of “functionality”. Next please.

używalność – the proposed alternative to użyteczność, which seems to tick the boxes – it suggests the capability of use, however the suffix -alny can be also interpreted by some as a “bare minimum”. Let me give an example: in Polish jadalny means “edible” – it is far from being delicious.

Jakob Nielsen's vote - Not sure!

ergonomia – the study of principles and methods for adjusting devices and tools to the human physical and mental capabilities. Jack pot? I think this well established term is the closest in its meaning and scope to “usability” and offers a whole range of possible usages as a noun, an adjective or an adverb.

Jakob Nielsen's vote - Yes!

My verdict – Funkcjonalność jest używalna, a ergonomia użyteczna.

Viva la ergonomia!

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