Usability or user experience - what's the difference?
The study of the relationship between people and technology has been called a variety of names over the years - from computer ergonomics, human computer interaction and usability to, more recently, human-centred design and user experience.
The term user experience is now widely used, especially by major players in the industry including Apple, IBM and Microsoft.
However, in many cases, the term is contrasted to usability which is often depicted as a much narrower concept focusing on systems being easy to use.
Other exponents explain that user experience goes beyond usability by including such issues as usefulness, desirability, credibility and accessibility.
Personally, I do not really care what this area is called but I have had to face up to it in my capacity as Chair of the sub-committee of the International Standards Organisation (ISO) which is responsible for the revision of ISO 13407 - the International Standard for Human Centred Design.
The ISO concept of usability is much closer to this definition of user experience than it is to the concept of ‘easy to use’ so we have decided to use the term user experience in the new version of ISO 13407 (which will be called ISO 9241-210 to bring it into line with other usability standards).
‘Easy to use’ is not enough
Easy is good but it is not enough. Focusing on ‘easy’ tends to marginalise it.
In today’s competitive times, I can see an IT project manager saying “we would have liked to make the new billing system a bit easier but we really didn’t have time and we did not want to delay it”.
I can see a hard pressed business manager saying “ok, it would have been nice but we didn’t want to wait”.
However, if you use the ISO 9241-11 definition, the picture changes. Can you honestly imagine the project manager saying (out loud) “We know the system is not going to work but we wanted to be able to tick the ‘delivered on time’ box?"
And can you imagine the customer saying, “Ok, it would have been nice if it had worked but we’d rather pay for a failed system than take a bit longer getting it right?” No, of course you can’t!
Similarly, the ISO concept of usability allows aesthetic issues to be addressed, if they are important to the user.
As I have written elsewhere, one of Apple’s strengths is that most of its products are highly engaging and attractive.
If the user’s task was simply to select and play MP3 files then the iPod would not have the market dominance it has. For most people, their task involves personal entertainment and having a product which is a delight to hold and use is part of that experience.
So what does User Experience include?
In the revised standard we define it as ‘all aspects of the user’s experience when interacting with the product, service, environment or facility’ and we point out that ‘it is a consequence of the presentation, functionality, system performance, interactive behaviour, and assistive capabilities of the interactive system.
It includes all aspects of usability and desirability of a product, system or service from the user’s perspective’.
Of course, Apple is particularly good at the total user experience. I recently visited the Apple Store in Fifth Avenue, New York with my wife Fiona. As we waited for her free appointment at the Genius bar, I could not help compare this with my own experiences of trying to get help from other software vendors.
I concluded that I’d much rather visit an iconic building staffed by people who seemed really enthusiastic and get free personal help than be kept on hold after pressing numerable buttons to find someone who would only speak to me if I paid £15 since my product was out of warranty (yes, that really happened).
Now providing an equivalent of the Apple Genius Bar does go a bit beyond our usual idea of usability but it is part of the infrastructure of training and support which should be designed as part of the human-centred design process.
What are the implications for business?
I hope that by making the user experience part of the human centred design process we will avoid marginalising it and make user experience a key business driver for all kinds of systems.
Thinking ‘user experience’ for consumer oriented products should encourage us to look at such issues as aesthetics, branding, packaging and support.
Thinking ‘user experience’ for bespoke desk top systems should encourage us to think more about such issues as work organisation, job design, training and support.
Whatever we call it, getting the relationship between people and technology right is critical to a project’s success and the intelligent application of a structured, people centred approach to design can only be a step in the right direction.