UX is not Usability


For many people, Usability is the first thing that comes to their mind when they think of UX. In many product UX discussions people mention things like: “users need easier ways to do things”, “the number of clicks are important” and “my grandmother should be able to understand..”.

At the end of the day many things contribute to the User Experience. This includes the products’ UI and Usability, but at the same time, even things like the users’ mood, the political situation in his country, branding and peer reviews factor in.

In other words, a lot of what makes up the User Experience has little to do with how usable it is.

Bad usability with good UX

It may seem counter-intuitive but sometimes just having everything working smoothly and as expected is not the key to keep your users active and engaged.

“Usability is not everything. If usability engineers designed a nightclub, it would be clean, quiet, brightly lit, with lots of places to sit down, plenty of bartenders, menus written in 18-point sans-serif, and easy-to-find bathrooms. But nobody would be there. They would all be down the street at Coyote Ugly pouring beer on each other.” — Joel Spolsky

People watch horror films, climb the Everest and listen to music full of distortion and dissonance. None of these conform to usability concepts such as “seamless”, “intuitive” and “easy to use”, and yet not many things can match the experience of reaching the peak of Mt. Everest.

Good friction and bad friction

There is a lot of talk about friction being a bad thing for UX.

Many usability experts promise to remove friction from the product experience. Even Apple has been promoting friction-less experiences in their payments and other products.

No one liked typing in long URLS displayed on labels. So we shortened them. Turns out no one liked URLS full stop, so many Museums tried adding QR codes. Few people had the QR code scanner app built into the phone or could be bothered downloading software to use them. So some in the sector integrated the reader and the content into apps. Others took a image recognition approach. Some looked a location aware systems to push content to visitors. Common theme? Reduction of friction. But not in the usual areas. — Tim Wray

While friction is a negative agent for usability, for user experience friction can have both good and bad effects on the user.

Good friction comes from things that may challenge your users and make them need to think more while using your product, maybe even make them do extra steps. — But at the same time imprint a stronger user experience.

A nice example for good friction is illustrated in this fantastic article on how good friction adds to the over-all users’ gaming experience.

Another nice article explains how it’s important to balance the good (motivation) and the bad frictions (hurdles).

UX and Usability over time

The term Usability has been there for quite a long time, people like Donald Norman have popularised since the late 80s.

The term User Experience emerged much later and is somewhat perceived as Usability’s successor.

The following graph shows how “UX” has been stealing the limelight away from “Usability” in the recent years.

Conclusion

For many people UX is synonymous to Usability. It may be good to note that UCD (User Centered Design) is also sometimes mixed up with both of them. And I can imagine new terms and term permutations may pop up in the future, making things even more confusing.

While Usability is a very important factor in achieving a good user experience, you should not always compromise other important things for it.

Read more

Myth #27: UX design is about usability

UX vs Usability

Design with dissonance

Friction and great user experiences

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