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How Low Can You Go? Is the System Usability Scale Range Restricted?

Philip Kortum and Claudia Ziegler Acemyan

Journal of Usability Studies, Volume 9, Issue 1, November 2013, pp. 14 - 24

Article Contents


The System Usability Scale (SUS; Brooke, 1996) is an instrument that allows usability practitioners and researchers to measure the subjective usability of products and services. Specifically, it is a 10 item survey that can be administered quickly and easily, and it returns scores ranging from 0 100. It has been demonstrated to be a reliable and valid instrument (Bangor, Kortum, & Miller, 2008; Kirakowski, 1994), is robust with a small number of participants (Tullis & Stetson, 2004), and has the distinct advantage of being technology agnostic, meaning it can be used to evaluate a wide range of hardware and software systems (Brooke, 2013).

One ongoing concern with the SUS is that its effective measurement range might be less than 100 points, as the SUS has tended to exhibit a lower range limitation for study means. While individual scores commonly span the full 100-point range, study means for a product or system rarely fall below a score of 50, even when the product has significant failure rates. Bangor, Kortum, and Miller (2008) described a study where success metrics were as low as 20%, but SUS scores never went below 60. Larger studies of collected SUS scores confirm this range limitation. In the same paper, Bangor, Kortum, and Miller reported the study means from 206 different studies and found that less than 1.5% of them had study SUS means below 40. This is the same trend that Sauro (2011) reported, where approximately 4% of his 233 reported studies had study means less than 40. Similar restriction in the high end is not seen. Group mean SUS scores of 80 or higher accounted for 27% of the scores in the Bangor, Kortum, and Miller study and approximately 17% in Sauro’s. Recent work by Kortum and Bangor (2013) reported SUS scores for everyday products and found no mean ratings below 50.

Why would such a limited effective range matter? Basic psychometric principles suggest that using only half of a scale changes how data collected using that scale should be interpreted, especially when comparing the relative usability of systems. If 50 really is the absolute floor for SUS scores, then the lower half of the scale (0-49) can no longer be interpreted as defining abysmal usability. Instead, the midpoint must now be defined as the lowest usability attainable and adjective ratings (Bangor, Kortum, & Miller, 2009) would need to be adjusted to reflect that. It is akin to grade inflation—when no one gives an F, then the interpretations of C-minus must be reconsidered to reflect that it now means abysmal performance.

To give an example in the context of usability research, if a group of participants are unable to complete a single task with a tested interface (i.e., success rate = 0%), but still rate the usability of that interface as a 50 with the SUS instrument, then fundamental questions about the basis of their subjective assessment arise. ISO 9241-11 specifies three measures of usability: (a) effectiveness (can users perform the task?), (b) efficiency (can they perform the task within acceptable time limits?), and (c) satisfaction (are they pleased with the operation of the interface in their accomplishment of the task?; ISO, 1998). If a user has failed to complete the task, then their effectiveness should be zero. Typically, failed tasks take longer than successful tasks to complete, so efficiency should also be greatly reduced. Finally users are rarely satisfied if they fail to accomplish their goal. On all three ISO metrics, failure of the task should lead to significantly lower SUS scores, and those scores should potentially span the entire range allowed by the SUS, just as success varies from 0-100%. This limitation of SUS usability scores could result in inaccurate correlations between the usability measurement and other variables of interest such as success rates, user experience (Kortum & Johnson, 2013; McLellan, Muddimer, & Peres 2012), consumer trust (Flavián, Guinalíu, & Gurrea, 2006), and gender and age. If this compression of SUS scores is proportional, then it would not be a problem. However, we have no evidence about the form of potential compression, so it remains a concern. Further, even though the limitations of the effective range of a scale can be corrected mathematically (Bobko, Roth, & Bobko, 2001; Wiberg & Sundström, 2009), determining if such a correction is warranted is a necessary first step.

This study attempts to determine if the limited effective range found in previous work is a property of the SUS itself, or perhaps a property of the kinds of studies or interfaces previously tested. To do this, voters’ subjective usability measures were examined by using the SUS to evaluate a variety of paper voting interfaces. Voting ballots provide a unique platform to study the potential range limitation problem in the SUS, because voting is generally viewed as an important, yet personal, task that is singular in nature. The personal nature of the task allows users to assess if their voting intent was reflected on the ballot (effectiveness), how long it took them to express their opinion or belief through a selection, i.e., vote, (efficiency), and if the process met their expectations and made them comfortable with their voting selection (satisfaction). The singular nature of the task means that the user will be focused on the single physical operation of marking the ballot, and this means that there is not a significant amount of multi-task integration, as might be seen with other more complex interfaces.


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