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Strategic insights
The Battle Between Usability and User-Experience

Written by on June 19, 2006

The main reasons why it is so hard to create usable products is that there is a conflict between a high-usability level and great user-experience. You might think this as strange, but there is a important difference between the two.

Usability

Usability is about the "ability to use" something. The aim for a usable product is to make it easy to use.

A product has a high level of usability when:

  • It requires less mental effort to use
  • the frequency of mistakes using it is less, or when the mistakes are less disastrous
  • it is more powerful, where "more powerful" means that it can be used to do more or do it faster
  • it is more learnable, that is, when a person can figure it out quicker

(source: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute)

Making usable products is thus fairly simple. You have clear metrics you need to achieve, and you can analyze how to get a good result.

User-Experience

User-experience is not like usability - it is about feelings. The aim here is to create happiness. You want people to feel happy before, during and after they have used your product. To do that you need to take all kinds of things into consideration. Things like:

  • Environment
  • Colors moods
  • Smell
  • Touch
  • Audio feedback
  • Visual feedback
  • Trust
  • Branding
  • Show-off effect
  • Usefulness
  • Practicality
  • Coexistence
  • Emotional effect
  • Etc...

This is much much much harder to achieve. None of these things can be accurately analyzed. It is a touchy feeling kind of thing.

Why, for instance, does a Audi S6 give you a much better user-experience than a Ford Focus? I mean, in terms of usability they are pretty much the same.

The difference illustrated

Take roads. A Usable road is one that is wide and straight (less mental effort), with no oncoming traffic (less mistakes, less mental effort). One that enables you to get from A too B as fast as possible (more powerful) and one that has a consistent and clear use of signs (high learnability).

In short the most usable road is a freeway. But, a freeway is also directly boring in terms of user-experience.

A road with a high level of user-experience is completely different. It is a twisting mountain road (visual). Now you got great scenery (visual, emotional), the smell of nature (smell), the excitement from the climb (and the sheer cliff only feet away). You got little friendly signs put out by the local, who sells fruits along your way (show-off effect). Every city is slightly different (branding, emotional, environment). You feel happy when you see the locals wave when you pass by, and you stop let a sheep pass (emotional, trust, coexistence).

But a mountain road is far from a usable road. It is much harder to drive on, it is difficult to learn, you can't go as fast and the risk of making a mistake (taking a wrong turn or cashing into a sheep) is much greater. But, a mountain road will give you a much better user-experience than any freeway could ever do.

Creating synergy

The reason why we have so few great products is because of this difference. Most developers try to find the right balance between high usability and high user-experience. A bit like trying to turn a mountain road into a freeway. It simply does not work. You end up with mediocrity.

Instead you need to create a synergy. A Synergy is when 2 + 2 = 37.

This is not easy. It requires a bit of luck, a great deal of intuition (female intuition is helpful), a great sense of humble pride, and something called "usable happiness (*)".

Flickr, The Sims, Apple iPod, Ta-Da list, MySpace, Google Picasa, Virtual Earth, Audi S6, Mac Mini, any Pixar movie, and iRobot Roomba are all great examples.

* Usable happiness: is a product that is simple to use, and makes you smile every time you use it.

Make it easy to be happy

It is far from easy to create a great product on demand, but it is possible.

First of all, do not focus on usability or user-experience. Do not directly try to achieve to create synergies. Do not try to create a great product. None of these things will get you any closer.

Focus on making it easy to be happy, and usability, user-experience and greatness will come all by itself.

Instead of making a product management web application, make it easy to finish great projects. Instead of making usable instant messaging, make it easy to have interesting conversations. Instead of making a powerful web writer, make it easy to write exciting stories.

The result is that you use usability to take away all the things that distracts you from happiness, and you use the elements of user-experience to empower what people can do.

... and now you got a great product.

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.

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