User Experience… same thing as Usability?

User Exp_V1All the jargon associated with the art and science of web site building can seem redundant. There are several similar terms for the initial definition phases of the build: user experience, usability, user interface. Are these the same thing?

ISO 9241-210 defines user experience as “a person’s perceptions and responses that result from the use or anticipated use of a product, system or service.”

User experience asks “what emotional response should the prospect have when they come here or leave here” and “what behaviors will make the visitor feel successful and in control.” Applying that thinking to building web sites, a pivotal foundation to a site’s success begins with taking a focused look at business needs in conjunction with the audience members and what they want to accomplish by visiting the site. The conclusions will touch all aspects of the subsequent content structure, framework, visual design and functionality (or user interface) and should be used as the litmus test to map back to from all phases of the build. Satisfying visitor goals runs deeper than pragmatic physical tasks. The team should ask themselves “does this satisfy the audience needs of x, y and z” throughout each phase.


Putting it into overly simple terms, let’s say an audience goal is to understand what square is. Which option will make the user feel most successful: describing it strictly textually OR showing them a drawing of one?


Reinforcing the visitor’s emotional response puts them in a positive position of control and that feels good. That visitor is going to feel much more successful and confident in digging deeper into the site if they are provided information that makes sense to them as they go.

So how is that different than usability? Usability is the pragmatic physical tasking; the ‘doing’ as opposed to the ‘feeling’. HOW did they get to the description of the square? Was the scent easy to track? Are the content structure and calls to action intuitive enough to move the user effortlessly to the goal? What do they need to do next to satisfy the business’ need?

Introducing complex pathways or unpredictable views and behaviors should be used with caution and strong confidence that the audience group will persevere in learning new things to get to their goal on the site. People learn most effectively when they build on what they already understand. The theory of behavior change says “complex behavior is learned gradually through the modification of simpler behaviors.” Where your new idea might be wicked slick and mind-blowingly innovative, it might not be the best user experience. Slick and innovative only works if the audience can respond to it with understanding and confidence.

This is where user experience and interface usability walk arm-in-arm. If usability strategies are well applied in the user interface, the user’s experience is a positive one. If the user’s experience is a positive one, the business goals are far more likely to be met. If the business goals are met, there is positive ROI. It’s a win-win for both visitor and business, and it starts with early definition of what the user’s experience should be in the context of business needs.