As long as there’s been an Internet, the discussion between user experience and usability has been explored. Although they are conceptually linked, taken separately, they highlight different elements of the human-computer interaction.

Yet in these days of advanced user interfaces, from mobile devices to e-readers to tablets, has the line between user experience and usability blurred? And if so, what does it mean for web standards and design? We examine their distinctions, roles and implications in an effort to answer these questions.

The Road

Throughout the early days of the Internet, the analogy of a road was widely used to describe usability and user experience. The story goes, a usable road is one that is wide and straight, and enables drivers to get from point A to point B as fast as possible, albeit in a very boring manner.

However, a road with a high level of user-experience is completely different. With great scenery and smells that stimulate driver emotion, the road may take twists and turns, but is not as direct as the usable road.

As the Internet has grown, so have the roads built by designers and developers. There many more interstates and back roads, not to mention an increase in vehicles, pedestrians and traffic signals.

The road analogy is no longer sufficient to define user experience and usability.

What Comes First?

Surely these concepts exist separately from one another: a site that is purely functional (i.e, Craigslist); or a site that is pretty but hard to navigate (Sputnik Observatory), but when using both, which comes first in the design process is not always clear.

The Nielsen Norman Group says that:

"User experience" encompasses all aspects of the end-user's interaction with the company, its services, and its products. The first requirement for an exemplary user experience is to meet the exact needs of the customer, without fuss or bother. Next comes simplicity and elegance that produce products that are a joy to own, a joy to use. True user experience goes far beyond giving customers what they say they want, or providing checklist features. In order to achieve high-quality user experience in a company's offerings there must be a seamless merging of the services of multiple disciplines, including engineering, marketing, graphical and industrial design, and interface design.

Jakob Nielsen defines usability as:

a quality attribute that assesses how easy user interfaces are to use.

He also outlines five quality components of usability, including:

  • Learnability
  • Efficiency
  • Memorability
  • Errors
  • Satisfaction

Using these definitions as a guide, it seems that in order to create a user experience, you must first understand what the user’s needs are, which can be measured using the five qualities outlined above. The user experience is only necessary once a website performs a function relevant to the user. If the user’s needs are met, the user experience can enhance the online process.

Yet, the user experience doesn’t always enhance a necessary or desired online interaction. Consider the mobile experience. In 2009, Jakob Nielsen called it “miserable,” citing that it is “neither easy nor pleasant to use the Web on mobile devices.” Research shows that when websites are designed specifically for mobile devices, they are easier to use. In this case, going from point A to point B requires that the user experience come before usability.

Designing Usability and User Experiences for Devices

What about when a device is not just a website, but a series of interactions and applications? When a reader wants to read books electronically, the manner in which they engage with a book can affect the product’s functionality.

We recently spoke about web standards for e-readers and how it will no longer be acceptable for e-books to be online iterations of scanned copies of print books. While it may be a way to get from point to point (reader to book), it doesn’t enhance the user experience if pages are poorly laid out and hard to read.

The iPad, on the other hand, seems to be intentionally focused on usability more than user experience. Users cannot multitask, it doesn’t include a built-in camera, Flash, or USB outlets. But it does address issues of effectiveness, efficiency and user satisfaction.

The blog UsabilityPost says that:

The iPad will succeed not because of what it has, but because of what it does. What it does is enough to cover all the basic needs of many people: look stuff up on the Web, keep a calendar, check email, show photos to your friends and watch videos.

The iPad is designed to be more than the iPhone and less than a Macbook and appeals to a segment of users that want a bigger screen than their phone from which to surf that web, but better portability than their laptop.

Yet, there are components of the iPad that will inherently increase the user experience of some interactions, like reading e-books, which will feature color and more dynamic layouts than the Kindle currently does.

The Future of Usability and User Experience

As the web continues to evolve, user experience and usability will continue to advance along with it. It may be impossible to keep up with definitions, but their implications will be evident.

Ultimately, all websites, devices and interfaces aim to be useful to those than interact with them. Being in tune to the needs of your users will ensure that your product is successful. However, we needn’t lose sight of the impact that enjoying the online experience brings to a product as well.

While it may not be appropriate or possible for them to coexist, designing sites that combine elements of each can only improve and evolve user behaviors.