Thursday, May 13, 2010

User Experience - More Than Just Usability

Lately, I’ve refined my research focus from online usability to user experience (UE). Yesterday, I told a colleague that I was studying user experience, to which she replied “You mean usability”. Her statement seems indicative of the prevailing thought on how we plan and evaluate online design.

Well, that’s not entirely true - as it still seems rather rare for many companies to adequately implement usability or to consider it at all. Hell, it seems many companies don’t even adequately consider their business goals for their websites or online applications.

Usability does seem to be considered more often nowadays. To begin with, however, there really isn’t a great, commonly-accepted definition of the term usability. I tend to use the International Standards Organization definition of usability as it appears to capture most of the agreed-upon elements and is frequently cited as a leading definition. ISO defines usability as “the extent to which the product can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction in a specified context of use” (ISO 9241-11:1998.).

This definition is certainly not without contention. Olsen criticizes usability experts, such as guru Jakob Nielsen, who tend to focus on these factors while ignoring the larger human experience:

The problem is that it ignores the emotional subjective side of human beings, which as marketers and brand strategists have long known, is foolish to ignore. Why do we enjoy a good meal when nutritionally it's no different than hospital food? Unfortunately, Nielsen's pronouncements have all too often been like a restaurant critic insisting we should all eat only a McDonald's, since after all it's the most efficient restaurant around. (

I believe it is fine to distinguish between usability’s focus on efficiency and the larger concept of user experience with its more holistic focus. Within user experience there are various factors that can apply at a macro level, for example an entire website or online application, or at the micro level, e.g. a specific online feature, piece of content, or tool. I will use the word product to encompass all such instances.

Various user experience factors include:
  • Affective – the emotions a product provokes, such as fun, anger, and frustration
  • Context – the physical and temporal aspects of the environment surrounding a given usage of a product
  • Hedonic – the ways in which a product results in pleasure
  • Social – how a product fits into a users social context, enables sharing and contributions from others
  • Value/usefulness – based on the costs (monetary, time, and other) of product usage, does it result in a sense of justifying the costs and does it achieve or surpass expectations
Accessibility – I often treat accessibility (ie. the ability for a product to address the needs of disabled users) as a usability issue. All users will at some time encounter difficulties using websites, however, so it does become important to distinguish between when a difficulty using an online product is at the individual or disability level. Shawn Henry describes this distinction: “When a person with a disability is at a disadvantage relative to a person without a disability, it is an accessibility issue” (

This is a rudimentary list and there is (growing) research that examines these issues in much more depth. However, this list is useful to begin considerations of a larger range of product issues beyond just usability. As without a sense of the various components of user experience, it is impossible to build applications that fully meet users needs or to even understand where an online application is delighting or failing its users.

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