Usability vs. User Experience

This blog is explicitly about interaction design with an emphasis on usability, i.e. as defined in the international standard [ISO 9241-11]:

Usability: Extent to which a product can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction in a specified context of use.

Effectiveness: Accuracy and completeness with which users achieve specified goals.

Efficiency: Resources expended in relation to the accuracy and completeness with which users achieve goals.

Satisfaction: Freedom from discomfort, and positive attitudes towards the use of the product.

User experience design claims a larger concern. Here is the ISO definition of user experience:

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

To get a working definition of an emerging term, where else to go than Wikipedia?

User Experience Design (UXD or UED) is a broad term used to explain all aspects of a person’s experience with the system including the interface, graphics, industrial design, physical interaction, and the manual. It is also referring to the application of user-centered design practices to generate cohesive, predictive and desirable designs based on holistic consideration of users’ experience. In most cases, User experience design fully encompasses traditional Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) design and extends it by addressing all aspects of a product or service as perceived by users.  [Wikipedia May 2012]

The last sentence rather suggests that user experience is just interaction design scaled up.  I don’t think that is the right way to think about it.  The following definition from the Nielsen Norman Group has a subtly different take:

” ‘User experience’ encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products.” [Nielsen Norman Group]

This explicitly acknowledges that the object the user is experiencing is delivered by a corporate entity (commercial or otherwise).  So it is not just the immediate experience of the product per se that is designed.

The emergence of the term ‘user experience design’, it seems to me, acknowledges that products (perhaps particularly software enabled products), are increasingly consumed as services.  I.e., what is bought is a particular utility, the product itself merely being the medium of delivery.   E.g., when I buy a domestic washing machine, what I want is a reliable and economic supply of clean clothes.  Along with the purchase price, I also buy an ‘extended guarantee’ that ensures availability of clean clothes will only be briefly interrupted by failure of the machine.  If the same convenience at the same price was available from a laundry collection service, I’d use that.  My commitment to ownership of the physical machine is minimal.  Within the computer domain, an obvious example is ‘cloud computing’.  Why own and maintain your own file servers when all you want is the utility of secure file storage?

That something is offered as a service raises a particular set of issues for customers.  The functional details of the provision of the service are much less significant.  Instead the reliability and stability of the corporate entity offering it is emphasised (interplaying with the cost to the consumer and the perceived quality).  Actually this  was always the case with high capital value items needing maintenance over a prolonged period.

Thus design of a product’s user experience encompasses both immediate interaction with the product itself, and interaction with the producer either directly or through an agent during the phases of; consideration, purchase, receipt (and ‘un-boxing’), initial and subsequent use, maintenance and disposal.  For a complex and high value product the delivery of this experience is going to be distributed amongst a wide cast of actors.  Fine grained design (and ensuring that any design is implemented) will not be trivial.  For proof that it can be done, look to Apple Inc. – but not every company is run by a Steve Jobs (and now not even that one).

Short of the user experience designer dictatorially running the company, a more circumscribed understanding of their responsibilities has evolved.  This is due to authors like Jesse James Garrett with his 2002 book, “The Elements of User Experience” [Garrett].  His excellent info-graphic locating web design activities in a multidimensional structure relates only to the user’s direct interaction with a product; my phases of initial and subsequent use.  The other, business activities (marketing, sales, installation and maintenance) are ignored.  So it has become user experience in the small; a portmanteau term to contain a set of distinct but interconnected design activities; analysis, specification, task oriented design, presentational design and aesthetic design.

So we come back to the Wikipedia definition.  However it is not clear what the prefix ‘user experience’ adds to ‘design’ as a description of the activity; that is other than ‘user’ connoting something to do with software.  So rather than an impoverished user experience design, should this be better though of as enhanced interaction design, concerned with more than usability?

Update May 2015

I just checked the Wikipedia entry I quoted previously (May 2012) as some sort of consensus around a contested term.  Perhaps unsurprisingly it has changed in the intervening three years:

User experience design (UXD or UED) is the process of enhancing user satisfaction by improving the usability, accessibility, and pleasure provided in the interaction between the user and the product.  User experience design encompasses traditional human–computer interaction (HCI) design, and extends it by addressing all aspects of a product or service as perceived by users. [Wikipedia May 2015]

The definition has become more succinct by summarizing previously separately listed elements of design (“interface, graphics, industrial design, physical interaction, and the manual”) as ‘user satisfaction’, made up of the triumvirate aspects  “usability, accessibility, and pleasure”.   It still gives prominence to the founding practice of interaction design.  However the inclusion of ‘pleasure’ is notable.  Interpreted as the often quoted four types of pleasure as identified by Lionel Tiger [Tiger]:

• physio-pleasures
• socio-pleasures
• psycho-pleasures
• ideo-pleasures

in the context of software product design this is branding; hitherto the concern of marketeers.  So user experience design is interaction design informed by market research.  Actually if you include what has come to be known as SEO (search-engine optimization) in marketing, this is an accurate description of the direction of the ‘profession’.


IBM, What is user experience design?,, viewed 29th May 2012.

ISO 9241-11 3 Definitions (1998)

ISO 9241-210 (2010)

Nielsen Norman Group, User Experience – Our Definition,, viewed 29th May 2012

Tiger, Lionel (1992). The Pursuit of Pleasure

Wikipedia, User experience design,, viewed (1st) 29th May 2012, (2nd) 5th May 2015.


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