WebWissen: Usability ≠ User Experience

As part of our regular 'Webwissen' series where we explain common terms thrown around in this digital world of ours, I wanted to touch upon a couple of terms that are often misused and wrongly exchanged for each other.

Why the confusion?

Many see these two terms as synonyms, and its understandable to a degree. The term ‘Usability’ or ‚how usable something is’ plays a very active role in a persons interaction with a product and hence makes up a large part of their experience with it. What else do you do with all these websites and apps but use them?! Surely this is the ‚user experience‘ in its entirety or?

So whats the difference?
Lets take a email address confirmation process for an example. Something we’ve all done often enough when signing up to an online service.
You’ve registered for a website and its generated an email for you to confirm your email address.

One variation might contain a short simple instruction to click the URL to confirm, its set in plain text format with zero formatting, all in one sentence looking like its been spat of a database directly. But its clear what I need to do to complete the task. No frills. A click on the link opens a crude success message in your browser.

MailChimp® email  address confirmation
MailChimp® email address confirmation
Another variation might begin by addressing you by your first name, give a short additional explanation about why the email has been generated, visually isolates the confirmation link for you to click & states how to unsubscribe in future. It uses an informal tone of writing and is set in a friendly non-standard font, using branded colors & accompanied by the company logo & contact details in the footer. Once clicked, a branded webpage opens confirming success & offering a promise not to use your email for spam. How nice..

Both are equally usable, yet the second variation, using aspects of copy-writing, visual & interaction design, in tandem with usability offers an enriched experience. The cumulative effect of these minor differences creates an overall ‚feel‘ & can have quite a positive effect on the receiver. The vendor is portrayed as more credible & trustworthy, their services more professional, the recipient more likely to take the offer seriously and form an emotional connection to the company, in turn having them return more often.

If one were to measure if the task of clicking the link was completed correctly (and hence measure the usability), you would expect to find fairly equal results. In practise however, people engaging with the second variation will not only be more likely to go through with the sign-up, but also be more prepared to engage with the vendor over time, having gained a sense of delight & trust via the experience. The usability the same, the user experience (and the carry-on effects) quite different.

So lets look closer at both terms to further illustrate the differences:

What is Usability?

Shortly stated, usability is the ease of use and learnability of a human-made object, which in our digital context is the User Interface (UI). Usability orientates itself around the goal of performing a task within that UI successfully.
It can also be fairly well assessed & measured to determine just how usable the interface is according to these criteria:

  • Learnability: How easy is it for users to accomplish basic tasks the first time they encounter the design?
  • Efficiency: How fast can experienced users accomplish tasks?
  • Memorability: When users return to the design after a period of not using it, does the user remember enough to use it effectively the next time, or does the user have to start over again learning everything?
  • Errors: How many errors do users make, how severe are these errors and how easily can they recover from the errors?
  • Satisfaction: How much does the user like using the system?

Great Usability is a must for a successful website or app. You’ve come to complete a task. If you can’t, you’ve failed in both terms of usability and user experience & your visitor won’t be back. Its vital to get usability right.
Yet its hardly a differentiator these days, which is why User Experience is a word thats gained a lot of attention in recent years as competition stiffens between vendors offering similar services wishing to offer more than just functionality.

So what is User Experience?

User eXperience (often abbreviated to UX) is a blanket term for all the aspects that go into creating how someone feels when they interact with a product, service or company, what they remember later and how they describe it to others & what perhaps the product, service or company might mean in their life. Its also alot more challenging to measure, given the often very subjective responses to these criteria. Many contributing factors contribute to this overall recognition, and they extend far beyond the product being usable.

The Facets of User Experience
The Facets of User Experience.

Diagram credit

A high degree of Usability is key, yet many more forces come into play to create a positive or negative user experience of a digital product:

The term encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products, and therefore extends beyond the user interface and into for example: industrial product design (& unboxing), TV, Radio & print media, in-store experience & customer service.

Many aspects merge together to create the overall feeling one has about a service, which in the best case scenario gives a seamless feel, is coherent with the product or services brand & leaves the user delighted.

Its a multi-disciplinary effort (hopefully) distributed across an organisation as perspectives from marketing, commerce, development, analytics & design come together with the goal to make a product useful, usable and enjoyable: a goal that many diverse disciplines can share and enhance, well beyond just the UI designer taking care of the usability.

Usability: vital to the overall User Experience, but only one aspect of what it encompasses.

For a look in greater detail at the multitude of influencing elements at work in UX, this diagram of the UX model, c/o uxmag.com is highly recommended.

And for more from our Webwissen series (mostly in German), check here.

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