Over the past 10 years, the lytic unit has become the most common means by which activity is expressed in cell-mediated cytotoxicity assays. The strengths and weaknesses of the lytic unit as a summary of cytotoxicity are discussed, and computational methods reviewed. The fundamental "assumption of proportional effect" which is implicit in the interpretation of lytic units is described and empirically tested. Based on extensive data from the assay of human natural killer (NK) activity against K562 targets, simplified computational methods are recommended. The proposed methods are easily explained, may be made robust to occasional erratic data, and permit a reasonable interpretation of lytic units even when the assumption of proportional effect breaks down.