The Difference Between Usability and User Experience

Jared Spool

March 16th, 2007

The customer, looking for a new digital camera, goes to the large electronic retailer’s website. She quickly finds the camera she wants, puts it in the cart, and without incident, pays for it using the option to pick it up at the store that same day. Quick, easy — she is pleased and excited to receive her camera.

When she arrives at the store, she initially doesn’t know where to go, as no visual clues present themselves. After a ten-minute wait at the customer service desk, she’s told she’s in the wrong place and needs to find another desk, this one labeled “Online Receiving”. Once she finds that desk, the clerk, who obviously can’t wait for his shift to end, sighs and says the camera she’s purchased is out of stock. She can buy a different camera at this point, but to receive a credit for her original online purchase, she needs to call an 800 number. She ends up leaving the store without a camera and a charge on her credit card she needs to resolve.

This scenario highlights the difference between usability and user experience — a question I get quite frequently these days.

Usability answers the question, “Can the user accomplish their goal?” In the case of our camera shopper, from the perspective of the site’s design, she did accomplish the goal, being very satisfied with the result.

User experience answers the question, “Did the user have as delightful an experience as possible?” The store portion of the experience canceled out the online portion.

If the online portion was the only thing involved, our customer would’ve been delighted with the results and likely shopped again. Because of the total user experience, she’ll likely resist shopping with the brand again.

In this organization’s case, the usability of the site involves only those people who directly influence the design of the site. However, to create a pleasurable user experience, we now have to involve people from all over the organization, including those people dictating how the store operations are designed and implemented.

User experience takes far more effort to do well, but the results have far better impact.

Are you focused on the user experience?

26 Responses to “The Difference Between Usability and User Experience

  1. Dave Says:

    I think your example actually highlights “experience design” more than “user experience design”. Its a gray, hair splitting difference, but one people should try to understand if they are to engage in this.

    Maybe a better way to say this, is where is “experience design” in your question. You have the very tactical goal oriented approach of holistic delight design in your scenario, but there is something much more strategic about ‘experience design” that doesn’t only aim for delight per se, but directs a clear communications message through the experience. so not only is an experience at Gap delightful in the store and online and through the receipt of your goods and the return method, etc. etc., but all of those processes evoke a specific class of emotional response that is more than positive, but hip, in, valued, trendy, not too old, not too young, etc. A well designed system will touch on each of these emotional elements at each point of intersection.

    The other piece that I think you are missing is that even if you were to concentrate JUST on the online experience itself, there is a clear separation of usability and user experience. usability as you state is a quality that expresses whether or not the product allows the user to complete a task or not, even if they like completing the task. UX speaks about qualities that are beyond utilitarian and enter into the emotional that are still at the product level: visual design, interaction design, IA, etc. all effect usability, but they also come together to move beyond usability.

    another aspect that I find interesting is that usability or really doability doesn’t seem to really speak to contextual realities of doability. Sure I can complete the task, but is that the BEST way for me to complete this task within my specific context of use. this is where IA and IxD merge together to really create the dynamic crux of a user experience.

    — dave

  2. Return Customer Says:

    Weekend Reading – March 16th…

    Convince me in Five Words or Less! —
    Steps on how you can create a catchy, memorable, and effective tag line or slogan for your business.
    The Difference Between Usability and User Experience —
    Creating a great user experience means coordin…

  3. Pabini Says:

    Excellent point, Jared! You’re right to refer to what you describe as user experience (UX). UX encompasses everything from purchasing a digital product to its out-of-the-box experience, if it has one, to using a product and getting assistance with a product. So customer service and technical support are part of the UX, as is a product’s online Help.

    Dave, when splitting hairs, 🙂 I’ve always drawn the line between UX design and experience design according to the presence or absence of a digital product in the equation.

    While many people despise the use of the term user in any case, that’s what we traditionally call people who use digital products. Thus, UX. But there’s no reason to refer to people as users in other contexts. So experience design seems to be a more appropriate term for things other than digital products—for example, airports, museums, hotels, amusement parks, highways, etcetera.

    Usability isn’t separate from user experience. Usability is a key aspect of user experience, along with those more subtle emotional responses that products evoke in people, which you’ve described. What makes the idea of user experience so powerful is its holistic, all-encompassing nature.

    Jared’s call for a focus on UX is certainly strategic. He’s raising the bar above mere usability, which is difficult enough to achieve in itself, to creating great user experiences. Companies that don’t have user-centered cultures rarely create great user experiences.

    —Pabini Gabriel-Petit, Publisher and Editor in Chief, UXmatters

  4. Greg Scowen Says:

    What strikes me as an issue here is that to refer to user experience as the entire process involved in ordering online, visiting the store, dealing with staff, and receiving goods (or not as the case may be) suggests so much responsibility on the user experience designer.

    While I agree that the user experience was unsatisfactory, this is not to say that the user experience designer did not create a good design.

    Too much hinges on the staff member being happy in, and committed to their job. The management following advice from the UX designer. The wholesaler providing stock on time, and so much more.

    However, I do think that at it’s most basic level, the problem described in the story could, and should, have been solved by the usability consultant and the web development team.
    Surely functionality within this system should be able to provide for inventory control? If it does, and if it does so correctly, then their is no reason for the customer to visit the store expecting stock that isn’t available.

    I still have to ask then. As someone who consults to businesses not only on their website design, functionality, and architecture as a usability specialist, but also on the need to follow this up with full customer support… am I a usability consultant, or a user experience specialist?

    The line remains blurry to me, because the role suggested in this story (user experience designer) entails the role of a branding manager, a sales expert, a marketing team, customer service staff and trainers, a board of directors…

  5. Dave Says:

    Greg, I think the answer to your question is that it isn’t 1 person that creates a user experience. It is a very collaborative process. My team at motorola we have separate people with the following roles:
    Industrial Designer
    Graphic Designer (iconography, and other visual treatments)
    interaction designer
    human factors
    behavioral researcher

    And that is just on the design team. We also work closely with marketing, product management, engineering (electrical and mechanical, software), and support.

    There is usually a design lead whose job it is to mix these various perspectives together and hold a vision of a user experience together and presents the final solution through to the product/service owner.

    There are few if any single individuals who can do all of this work by themselves.

    — dave

  6. John Says:

    It’s funny, I was just looking at a field studies report and storyboard I completed in 2001 while working for an Electronics Co describing their in-store pick up experience and how it should be improved…from the sound of it, they haven’t tried to improve it since 🙂

    Greg, I understand what you’re saying but the problem is usually bigger than a website allowing a customer to buy a product not in stock. Most times problems occur when the different systems (not just technology systems) interface with each other; then other times its comes down to a person not doing their job (i.e. pulling the product from the shelf so it isn’t sold to someone else).

    I think to Jared’s point, user experience is a little more multi-disciplinary than usability. However, many of the methods and tools typically categorized under usability can be applied to improving an experience (digital or other medium).

  7. Compete on Usability Says:

    Usability ROI: metrics aren’t enough…

    Does your boss tell you, If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it? One of the reasons usability doesn’t mesh with business at some companies is that it can be difficult to quantify the benefits of good usability. In…

  8. Rajesh Says:


    I think it is a simple yet powerful article. The fact that usability is a subset of the overall user experience is quite evident.

    The online channel is one such touch point with the brand. The perception of th brand is certainly is a summation of all the experiences with various touch points of the brand. Getting the site usability right and not delivering the right instore experience is a example for the above statement.

  9. jobrien Says:

    Seems to me that the site failed in its usability as well. If the site is set up to sell inventory directly out of the company’s brick and mortar stores, then the site should have been aware of the selected store’s inventory. If this had been done accurately, the user would have known not to purchase the camera at that time or at least not to run to the store in hopes of picking it up immediately.

    The “user experience” piece is the whole experience and the crucial part of this story is where the ball was dropped by the company, in the store itself, with lousy customer service and process, as is so often times the case. That’s management’s fault…

  10. DK Says:

    Quote: “My team at motorola we have separate people with the following roles:
    Industrial Designer
    Graphic Designer (iconography, and other visual treatments)
    interaction designer
    human factors
    behavioral researcher”

    Off topic, but somewhat relevant. I know Dave is a smart guy and I assume that his cohorts are as well. But this serves at confirmation that a commitment to experience (call it UX, call it XD, doesn’t rally matter to me) has to have buy in from the top. I have no doubt that Dave and his team can design a great interface, but I can honestly say no interface has ever made me want to stab myself repeatedly more than a Motorola phone.

    I had a clamshell phone produced by Motorola, arguably the coolest piece of hardware that I have owned, that now sits in my desk drawer because I’d rather revert to a rotary phone than use that thing again.

    Okay, this was way off topic and now that I read it, not really relevant at all, but the quoted text above struck a cord with me.


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  17. jyoti Says:

    Worth reading article thanx to Jared

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