Usability vs. user experience

I am repeatedly struck between the difference between usability and the user experience. I know, "user experience‿ has been beaten to death by Microsoft for the last five years. You cannot have a good user experience without usability. After all, if the user cannot use your product to accomplish their goals, it does not matter if they enjoyed not being able to do what they wanted to do.

This all comes back to how versus why. When developers are working strictly for usability, they are still focusing nearly exclusively on how questions. "How can we let the user perform operation XYZ easiest?‿ When developers are working towards why, questions like "does the user even want to perform operation XYZ?‿ come up instead.

All too often, software and hardware is loaded down with the wrong features, or too many features. This hurts the overall user experience. The user quickly becomes lost, unable to figure out what they want to do, or even what they can do. Study after study has shown, the user is better off with ten operations or functions then fifty, if the ten choices cover 90% of their needs. On the other hand, power users need a way to easily unlock the full potential of the product. Nothing is more frustrating to an advanced user than being blocked by a "user friendly‿ interface that forces them to jump through step-by-step hoops, wizards, and so on to do an advanced task that they already are familiar with. This is one of my persistent frustrations with Microsoft Office. Every time it thinks that it is helping me, it is really hindering me.

A good user experience meets and exceeds the user's expectations. Unfortunately for developers and product engineers, there are only a few select products on the market which cannot be easily imitated and improved upon. This is how Google became such a successful search engine; they recognized that all of the existing search engines offered a poor user experience, and improved the entire workflow, from opening the search page faster with less clutter all the way through to displaying meaningful, accurate results. It was not that other search engines were not usable; every search engine had about the same syntax for advanced searches, basic search all worked the same, and everyone could find the box to type in the query. It was that the overall user experience was miserable.

The user experience is so much more than usability; it starts the moment the customer first hears about your product, carries through to the purchase process, the customer support, the installation and configuration, and all of the way through no longer using the product. For most products, the primary portion of the user experience is how it addresses their day-to-day why based goals. Does it help them do their job more effectively than other products or what they previously were doing?

And this is why it is so important to code towards the user's why and not just the how. Usability focuses on making sure that the how is flawless; user experience is about ensuring a perfect why.

What are you doing to give your users the best experience possible?


About Justin James

Justin James is the Lead Architect for Conigent.

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