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Usability != User Experience

Historically, usability engineering is done toward the end of a product development cycle, before something goes to code (and, sadly, often not until after), and usually by that point, the only revisions that can be made are rather superficial. If usability testing demonstrates that there are fundamental flaws with the product, well, too late, we’re too far along, so just make this thing as “usable” as possible and don’t worry about it.

For aeons, usability practitioners have tried to extract themselves from these testing backwaters. They’ve rightly pointed out that you are more likely to make something usable if you test iterations of the design, catching fundamental flaws before they’ve become too deeply ingrained.

In attempting to expand their mandate, though, usability practitioners were dissatisfied with simply testing what others have created. And so they’ve attempted to re-define usability in order that it be, well, more interesting.

A case in point: Whitney Quesenbery’s 5E’s Of Usability, Effective, Efficient, Engaging, Error Tolerant, and Easy to Learn. At first blush, it all sounds fine and good. At second blush, one word pops out as not belonging: “engaging.”

Her definition: “How well the interface draws the user into the interaction and how pleasant and satisfying it is to use.” I would argue that this has little to nothing to do with usability. It has everything to do with “desirability”, a valuable quality, but outside the purview of usability.

These redefinitions stick in my craw. It contributes to the territoriality of folks who ought to be simply striving toward common goals. It’s one thing for an individual usability practitioner to desire being part of the team that makes a product more engaging. It’s another thing to translate that desire into a professional pillar. All that this does is further confuse the issue. Ought I go to a “usability engineer” in order to make my product more engaging?

I’ll leave you to answer that question.

This relates to my earlier post on the word “design.” Usability, whether it’s practitioners like it or not, is perceived as a commodity service. We’ve seen again and again “usability” projects simply go to the cheapest bidder. (To some degree, I’m fine with this… usability, on its own, is a commodity. Usability on its own is not worth a lot. If usability isn’t being performed in the context of a larger user experience process, and that within a larger product development process, I can pretty much guarantee that whatever findings emerge from usability will be ignored.)

This is not to say usability engineering isn’t important — it’s critical. But it’s also critical that the practice’s inputs and outputs stay focused on making things *usable*, that is, making it so that people are able to use the product. Able as in physically able, cognitively able.


  1. Perhaps Whitney’s view has more long-term value and is more in keeping with other design disciplines. Take the example of Product Designers. As far as I’m aware you don’t get ‘usability’ product designers and ‘aesthetic’ product designers. Rather you have product designers who are trained (and learn through experience) to build aesthetics, emotion, usability and robustness into their products. These become skills rather than individual professions.

    Then again, maybe I’m wrong :0)
    It’s another perspective anyway


  2. I tend to agree with you Peter: User Experience is a larger concept than usability. For example, I specifically asked this of a panel at CHI a few years ago. The consensus was that UE was a term that opened a lot more doors than usability did.

    But I also see the “other side” – the folks that say that usability is being unfairly put into the “evaluation” pigeon hole. That if you read the early definitions, it was ALWAYS about the big picture, even if in practice the testing side got most of the press.

    Whatever. When I read articles like Whitney’s, then I equate UE and usability and do not get upset over the terminology.

    I do know that “user experience” is working better for me right now as a label to operate under – it helps me do the things I want to do today. More power to Whitney if “usability” is the term that works for her.

    But then I am also the person who publicly said he was an “information architecture whore” – using that term to serve my needs and not married to it. So maybe I am just sleezier than you, Peter.

  3. “Engaging” has to be part of the definition. Otherwise every interface problem could be solved using a command line.

  4. I disagree. A phone (I mean plain old huse-phone), does not have to be “engaging” to be “Usable”.

    A button that fits within a beautiful creative design may be more engaging or enticing, but it is no less usable (although it may in fact be less usable) then a plain old grey html-beveled button.

  5. “Historically, usability engineering”

    Ummm. Peter’s using “usability engineering” to mean usability testing, so is he creating a strawman argument?

    “And so they’ve attempted to re-define usability in order that it be, well, more interesting.”

    What?!? Rather than redefining the usability practitioner’s role to do preventative and/or more effective work. From my perspective, this is just more strawman arguments from Peter.

    “It has everything to do with “desirability”, a valuable quality, but outside the purview of usability.”

    More strawman arguments. (There appears to be a pattern here.) Peter takes a narrow view of what usability is and is not, without defining what he means.

    “Ought I go to a “usability engineer” in order to make my product more engaging?”

    Obviously, some people think so.

    The bottom line here, which I also posted as a comment in the “design” discussion, is what are people using these terms for(“design”, “usability”, “user experience”) when they do not bother to define them? Obviously, they are being used for rhetorical purposes, which begs the question, is this just empty rhetoric, or is there something useful behind it? Just another granfalloon?

  6. My main point is that there exists, in the world, the word “usable”:

    Main Entry: us·able
    Variant(s): also use·able /’yü-z&-b&l/
    Function: adjective
    Date: 14th century
    1 : capable of being used
    2 : convenient and practicable for use

    It’s a clear and simple word with a clear and simple definition. “Usability” attempts to make things more usable, more capable of being used, more convenient and practicable for use.

    This has nothing to do with “engaging.” Engaging is an important quality in things which are used — but it’s not about whether the thing is “usable.”

  7. Hmmm, if you look at a definition that belongs to a more recent century than the 14th, “engaging” is may not be quite such a stretch. I haven’t paid the bucks to retrieve the actual ISO documents, but apparently the International Organization of Standards (this little organization that is a “network of the national standards institutes of 147 countries”) apparently defines usability as “the 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.” (

    Is engaging a stretch from satisfaction? Not to me, and I appreciate Whitney’s alliteration. Of course, I was one of two editors who included her longer “5E’s” chapter in a book, so I am a bit biased.

    IMO, usability is one of those labels that suffers from a big/little connotation. Yes, little (or tactical) usability may be so much about testing that relating it to a quality such as “engaging” doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But when you look at usability in the big (or strategic) sense — when the term user-centered design is often used as well — then considering whether or not a product is “engaging” makes a lot of sense to me.

  8. I guess I’m no longer allowed to add comments, since my last one was removed without any word, private or otherwise from Peter.

  9. Hi,

    I’ve had a very similar debate recently. Obviously, if you define Usability to be “everything”, then there’s no difference. My take on usability is that it’s a very important component of User Experience…but it’s not the only one. To illustrate the difference, we’re using a VCR as an example:

    The ease with which you can record a show using the user interface (e.g., remote control) is an indication of the usability of the VCR. However, the fact that the VCR is a sleek silver unit that blends in perfectly with your designer lifestyle home entertainment system is not an indication of its usability, but certainly enhances the user experience. Also, the fact that it makes terrible quality recordings detracts immensely from the user experience, but not from its usability. (It just needs the heads cleaned).

    Does this make sense to people ?

  10. I’m confused (and I formally studied philosophy). The notion of “user experience” is relatively new (and, in my view, nothing but usability redefined). If you look at any Usability Engineering process, product designers are involved (whether they’re UI Designers involved with software development or Industrial Designers involved with the design of a new lighting switch) and they are informed by the methods and tasks within the Usability Engineering Lifecycle (the user experience is created via the process).

    I think the same confusion lies with the word “Information Architect” ; it’s only with the advent of the web that IA has taken to mean a softer discipline (involved with navigation, design, et. al.)

    The field of usability would be better off if we could all agree on a term/def; in my view we would all be taken more seriously, thereafter. User Experience just doesn’t cut it for me, how about we stick to usability…


  11. I agree that “engaging” does not belong in a definition of “usability.” Ideally, any instrument or technology disappears in its use. I don’t want to be engaged by my fork while eating, for example.
    On the other hand, I agree with those comments here which focus on the general problem of defining terms like “use,” “usability,” “experience,” etc. “Use,” for example, is contextual. Even something that doesn’t function according to the initial intentions of its creator can be “used” – my neighbor used cd’s to decorate her windows. At the same time, any object that has been “engineered” – i.e., created to perform a particular function – has been “user engineered” to some degree – that is, created with a user in mind (even if it is only that of the creator).
    The ultimate issue is specificity. What is the specific purpose of this device? Who specifically will use it? How specifically will they use it? When specifically will we, as engineers and designers, determine if this device can be used for this specific purpose by these specific users? Etc.
    Behind all these questions lie the deeper question: Why are we creating this specific device (technology, design, etc.) instead of any other device? A thorough consideration of that question with all its implications should set the stage for a rational design (in the broadest sense of that term) process focused on meeting the specific needs of specific people in this specific world.

  12. OK, if we’re not going to include “engaging” as a component of whether a site is usable, it’s reasonable enough to include “engaging” as a component of whether a site is used. There are plenty of “usable” sites (the W3C site is a prime example) that I never use because usability in the strictest sense is all they have. Engaging design (graphic or otherwise) matters. Engaging language matters. What qualifies as engaging, of course, varies by user.

  13. Cheshire, that is exactly it; if it varies by user and you attempt to satisfy and/or engage each user, you do not get a usable system or site. In my usability work, I aim to satisfy the majority of our users (given the data).

    The W3C in my view engages the user because they accomplish their primary goal, namely, conveying info about standards, best practices, etc. The web is about information retrieval and if cognition is about information processing then the primary goal of any web site should be to convey information to the end user. Engaging a user is relative, therefore very difficult to measure and design for….

  14. Vincent, you and I completely diverge on the effectiveness of the W3C site. For me the site fails because the people running it seem so narrowly focused on usability that they appear to have forgotten to make the text or design engaging. What the site says to me with its dry, impenetrable jargon and thoroughly uninteresting and poorly-thought-out design is that it’s for programmers and engineers; designers and content people aren’t really welcome in the club.

    As a graphic designer and writer who is interested in finding out whether standards-compliant design is actually a good thing, I look to the people behind standards to sell me on the subject. Where can I find people who are knowledgeable about standards who will understand my concerns?

  15. “How well the interface draws the user into the interaction and how pleasant and satisfying it is to use.” This *is* a good definition of the user experience, in the sense that businesses will talk about the consumer experience.

    In my view (as a usability consultant), usability certainly *overlaps* with user experience … but I agree that they are not quite the same thing.

  16. I think the one can’t exist without the other. When an interface has a high usability, but it isn’t satisfying to look at you don’t want to read the information. But then again, if it looks really good, but you have no clue where you can find the information you want, it doesn’t work as well..
    And Marius, (from Holland too??) I think your definition of the user experience comes close to the usability definition of Nielsen:

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

    Because under quality also falls e.g. satisfacion.

    Maybe someone can think of a new word that describes usability AND user experience.

Comments are closed.


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