Usability vs. user experience: What’s the difference?

By UserTesting | December 7, 2023
A view from behind of two women using a laptop.

Prioritizing user experience isn't a one-size-fits-all process. There are multiple dimensions to it. Using the terms usability user experience interchangeably is just one example of how the different aspects of UX can become muddled.

Some organizations focus on usability, while others focus on user experience. And these two mentalities can have different impacts on your organization. Let’s dive deep into usability vs. user experience and determine which focus leads to the types of well-produced products or services that will keep your customers coming back.

Usability vs. user experience: Does it matter? 

Usability and user experience are two separate terms. And the difference between them matters a lot. One of the top mistakes of UX experts is focusing exclusively on usability rather than user experience.

We'll get into how you can avoid that mistake. But first, let's break down what usability is, what user experience is, and why the difference between the two terms matters.

What is usability?

Usability refers to a product's ease of use. It measures how well a specific user in a particular context can use a product, understand a design, or achieve a defined goal. Professionals started using the term “usability” in the 1980s. The term was designed to encourage tech professionals to simplify their technology. Customers want intuitive design. They want to be able to pick up a new piece of technology and use it immediately. 

An article published in 1981 entitled “Tutorials for the First-Time Computer User” outlines guides for usability testing. In the article, Chaponis and colleagues discuss the idea that watching groups of people use a piece of technology can make usability issues apparent. 

What is user experience?

User experience is a term used to describe a person’s—or user’s—overall satisfaction and perception of a product, service, or system. It’s an umbrella term incorporating other concepts, including usability, accessibility, and emotional response. 

The term user experience wasn’t coined until the 1990s. Leaders at Apple realized that usability was great, but it didn’t fully encompass everything they expected of their brand. They hired Donald Norman to help them fully realize their vision for the relationship between their products and customers. The term was coined a few years later when Norman came up with the title “user experience architect” for his job with Apple.  

The idea behind using this broader term is that it takes a holistic view of a user’s interactions rather than looking only at usability or emotional response. User experience encompasses a range of concepts, including: 

  • Whether the product does its job
  • Whether the product meets a client’s expectations
  • How the customer feels about the product or company
  • Whether customers can get their questions answered

Beyond functionality and emotional resonance, user experience extends to how seamlessly a product or service integrates into a user's daily life. The idea behind improving user experience is to exceed expectations by creating a lasting and positive impression. It involves understanding the user's journey, from the initial encounter with a product to their ongoing relationship with the company and the product, emphasizing the importance of consistency and reliability.

Usability vs. user experience: Key takeaways

Usability and user experience both relate to how clients interact with products, services, or companies. But the two terms are not interchangeable. 

Usability is a very specific term that describes only how easy it is for a customer to use a product or service. This concept often involves elements like intuitive design, clear navigation paths, and efficient workflows. It addresses the practicality of the product, gauging how easily users can navigate the user interface and accomplish tasks.

User experience, on the other hand, extends beyond the boundaries of usability. It encapsulates the entire journey and emotional response of the client, delving into factors such as brand perception, aesthetic appeal, and the overall impression left by the product or service. 

While usability is a key factor in user experience, it is not the only factor. Focusing on user experience means acknowledging that positive interactions involve more than just seamless functionality. It’s about creating a connection that resonates with the user on a deeper level.

Designing with user experience in mind

Now that you understand the difference between usability and user experience, the next step is understanding how to apply that knowledge to your organization. 

Why is it important to design for user experience rather than usability?

When designing new products or evaluating current offerings, thinking about usability is only a piece of the puzzle. Instead, organizations need to consider the totality of a user’s experience with a product or service. 

Consider, for example, an educational company looking to create an app to teach kids new words. A company designing only with usability in mind might design a set of virtual flashcards. Kids might be shown a word. Intuitively, they might think to tap the screen; the word would flip over and show the definition. 

While this product might be usable, it might not solve all necessary challenges from user experience perspective. User experience experts would consider things like:

  • Engagement: Would this product keep the learner’s interest long enough for them to learn new words? 
  • Accessibility: Would learners who don’t yet know how to read be able to benefit from this product? 
  • Understanding: Would just reading the definition of a word automatically translate to a learner being able to use the word appropriately in context? 

Just by asking these questions, we can envision a better idea for a product. The product might read new words aloud, for example. It might use characters, videos, and music to bring the new words to life. It might provide opportunities for learners to use the new words in context. 

Suddenly, instead of a flash card app, you have something more akin to DuoLingo or DuoABCs — a successful product that has good usability but also provides a top-notch user experience. 

3 key strategies for designing with user experience in mind

Designing with user experience in mind goes beyond observing a few individuals using a product and solving their immediate issues. User experience experts need a deeper understanding of their clients’ needs, as well as what drives those clients in their day-to-day lives. 

Strategy 1: Learn about your customers

One of the most effective ways to learn about your customers is to talk to them. Unfortunately, research consistently shows that companies neglect to include human insights. This may happen because leaders aren’t budgeting for customer feedback surveys, or it may happen because they don’t know what questions to ask. 

UserTesting can eliminate these barriers and mitigate risk during the communication phase of user experience planning. By watching real customers review your website in real time or use your app with mobile testing, you can gain insights into both the usability of the website and how well your site matches up to customer expectations and needs. 

Strategy 2: Consider the concept of  personalization

At its core, personalization recognizes that users have diverse needs and preferences. It means abandoning a one-size-fits-all approach and instead tailoring a user’s experience with your brand to align with their needs, ideals, and preferences. 

By incorporating elements of personalization, you make it so customers can instantly see how your product or service fits into their life. This is critical when it comes to improving user experience because it ties to the idea of building a connection between your brand and your customers. In fact, according to recent studies most customers expect brands to deliver personalized experiences.

This approach is about more than including a customer’s name in your promotions emails or sending product recommendations. The goal is to make users feel seen and understood, fostering a sense of loyalty and affinity towards your brand. For instance, if a subgroup of your target audience values sustainability, personalization might involve highlighting eco-friendly features or initiatives associated with your products or services when contacting members of that group.

This level of personalization helps align your company’s products and values with your customer’s core identity and can help you form meaningful connections with your customers.

Strategy 3: Focus on driving engagement

Engagement isn’t just a buzzword; it’s a critical component of user experience. 

Customers who are engaged with a product or company are interested in coming back for more. They enjoy what the company stands for and actively seek interaction with the company rather than waiting on the sidelines for the company to have something interesting to say. 

Consider, for example, the connection between player experience and video game mechanics. Video games are designed to be easy to pick up and to build on previous successes. This leads to players feeling confident with the system and suitably challenged without feeling frustrated. It leads to engagement and genuine joy. 

The same concept holds true for company products and services. The mechanics of a website should guide the user’s actions, while content should keep them interested and immersed in the experience. Trending technologies like augmented reality, 3D views of products, and gamified shopping experiences all draw on these techniques. The idea is to make interacting with a brand simple but memorable, providing positive feedback that keeps audience members wanting to come back for more. 

Improve the totality of user experience

Great usability should be considered the minimum for today's digital products and experiences. User experience, on the other hand, incorporates usability as one of the many building blocks of a great product or service. Companies that embrace the concept of user experience understand that customers need more than a product that’s easy to use. They need a product that actively drives engagement, meets their needs, and aligns with their personal identities.

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With UserTesting’s on-demand platform, you uncover ‘the why’ behind customer interactions. In just a few hours, you can capture the critical human insights you need to confidently deliver what your customers want and expect.