‘Usability’ is a big buzz word these days in software and website development. Everyone says they want to have it, but in the end – they don’t want to spend the time or money required to do it right. Usability is often the number one stated goal of a redesign, and then the first thing to get cut when budgets and timelines run short.
You’re right – usability isn’t a necessity in order to get something out in the world. But if you want something that your users will love, it is a requirement.
Here's my favorite analogy to explain what usability is and why it is valuable: Usability is to design as quality assurance is to code. I have used this analogy to explain usability to many software developers. You would never send your code out in the world without testing it and fixing bugs. Why would you send your design out without testing it and fixing it too? Without testing it you are just guessing and guessing leads to expensive mistakes (and more redesigns down the road).
Most people think they can look at a design and judge whether other people will be able to use it or not. I've personally run hundreds of usability tests along side of world-class designers and I can tell you honestly that I've never run a usability session where we didn't discover a problem that we didn't know existed. Typically it's not just one problem either, it's tens or hundreds.
Here are a few truths:
(1) No one, no matter how savvy they are at design, can perfectly predict how actual users will use a site
(2) If you designed it, it will always seem intuitive to you even if it doesn't work for anyone else
(3) Just because you are a user of the internet doesn’t make you a user of the site you are actually building
So now that I've hopefully convinced you that you need to do this thing, you may be wondering how to go about doing it. The best approach is to validate your assumptions and designs all along the way. Talk directly to users to find out what they need and what their problems are before you even start designing. Show concepts to users to see if you are headed in the right direction. Then run usability sessions to find out if your design is intuitive and easy to use (and iterate until you get there).
It is a process, it does require design and research experts, but it works. And the love and loyalty you will gain from your customers will be well worth it.