Usability And User Experience – There Is A Difference

While it’s not always the case, on those occasions when I come across a position description for a user experience librarian or hear an existing user experience librarian describe his or her job, it primarily comes across as a description of a usability professional. By that I mean someone with expertise in designing, evaluating or testing user interfaces for the express purpose of delivering a great user experience with that particular interface or website. User experience may also be aligned with library assessment, the point being that someone needs to assess whether or not the user community is pleased with their library experience. Given the limited degree of librarian interest in design and user experience back when DBL started, the evidence provided by the growth in these positions and units is an encouraging sign. But perhaps we need a conversation about what user experience is and what it is not.

More than Usability: The Four Elements of User Experience“, authored by Frank Guo, attracted my attention because it effectively articulates some of my own thoughts about the relationship between usability and user experience. The first paragraph nicely sums up the relationship between usability and UX:

Some people mistakenly use the terms user experience and usability almost interchangeably. However, usability is increasingly being used to refer specifically to the ease with which users can complete their intended tasks, and is closely associated with usability testing. Therefore, many perceive usability to be a rather tactical aspect of product design. In contrast, UX professionals use the term user experience much more broadly, to cover everything ranging from ease of use to user engagement to visual appeal. User experience better captures all of the psychological and behavioral aspects of users’ interactions with products.

I have used the term “totality” previously to express what Guo describes as “to cover everything”. The user experience, from my perspective, in about much more than usability. It’s about designing an intentional, well-thought out experience that ensures the community member has a consistently great library experience at every touchpoint. Guo, in this first part of a series on user experience, identifies the four distinct elements of user experience which puts into better perspective the relationship between usability and UX. One of the four elements is usability, and I’ve maintained, as well, that usability is critical to a successful library user experience. According to Guo, usability asks the question “is it easy to use?”

two ways to think about ux
totality and usability - usability is part of totality

Guo shares my view that “while some people use the term “usability” to refer to all elements relating to user experience, it should be more appropriately viewed as just a subset of user experience.” At its most basic level usability is about making things easy to use. While that typically applies to interfaces, there may be non-IT possibilities for usability. It could certainly apply to the experience of retrieving a book from the stacks. It should be easy to navigate the library, but the layout of the shelving or the signage may fall flat and will result in a much higher level of dissatisfaction. There’s clearly a need for usability testing and assessment activity on a library UX team.

The other three elements of Guo’s model are:

1) Value – Does the product provide value to users? Value may very well be the cornerstone of better library experiences. It matters little how creative or inventive a product is if no one derives some value from it. I could debate how essential features are, but I agree that functionality is critical to making something valuable.

2) Adoptability – This one is related to value. It simply asks if anyone is using the product or service. A library database may be a reasonable example in that encouraging “Adoptability” could engage community members in getting them to use the database in more of their searches. If we fail to get user community members to adopt our products, services or technologies, then what’s the point of designing an experience we want them to have – and does it really matter how good the usability is. Then again, if the product isn’t easy to use, no one will adopt it. Which is why all the components involved here need to work together.

3) Desirability – Any good library experience will create some sort of connection with a community member, and the goal is to make an emotional connection: “Desirability related to emotional appeal.” The best products or services are truly great owing to the emotional connection they create between the library and community member. Usability can certainly be a factor in generating that connection. More so than other elements, desirability can depend more on visual presentation.

Guo provides some additional examples of how these elements differ from one another, which is a big help because there are some similarities. He concludes by stating that his four-dimensional model of user experience may have some commonality with one or two earlier efforts that tried to develop explanations for user experience, but that his model emphasizes that not all the components within the model – those four elements – are equal in nature. Depending on the product, service or situation, anyone of the four may emerge as the linchpin to a great library experience. I am not sure what Guo plans for the next part of this series, but I hope he’ll continue to elaborate on the components of the user experience and how they can be leveraged to create a great library user experience. His essay will certainly be of benefit to those who seek to gain a better understand the difference between usability and totality.

Get In Touch With Your Touchpoints

Despite making multiple references to touchpoints in past DBL posts and in presentations, it is a real challenge to find any substantive information about touchpoints. What is their significance in the user experience and what do we know about assessing and improving what happens at the touchpoints across our service operations. Yes, you can find an entry for it in Wikipedia, which is short on details, but beyond that there’s little for those who want to better understand touchpoints.

That’s why I was pleased to discover an actual research article focusing on touchpoints titled “Service Innovation Through Touch-points: Development of an Innovation Toolkit for the First Stages of New Service Development“. It appeared in the International Journal of Design Vol.5, No.2 2011. The focus of the paper is to develop innovation in service design and development by focusing on touchpoints. The author, Simon Clatworthy, developed a toolkit based on a card system as a tangible way for designers to better understand the impact of touchpoints in service experiences, and how to potentially make improvements to those touchpoints. Clatworthy begins with a good definition of the touchpoint:

Touch-points are the points of contact between a service provider and customers. A customer might utilise many different touch-points as part of a use scenario (often called a customer journey). For example, a bank’s touch points include its physical buildings, web-site, physical print-outs, self-service machines,bank-cards, customer assistants, call-centres, telephone assistance etc. Each time a person relates to, or interacts with, a touch-point, they have a service-encounter. This gives an experience and adds something to the person’s relationship with the service and the service provider. The sum of all experiences from touch-point interactions colours their opinion of the service (and the service provider). Touch-points are one of the central aspects of service design. A commonly used definition of service design is “Design for experiences that happen over time and across different touchpoints” ( As this definition shows, touchpoints are often cited as one of the major elements of service design, and the term is often used when describing the differences between products and services. They form the link between the service provider and the customer, and in this way, touch-points are central to the customer experience.

Knowing that touchpoints “are central to the customer experience” suggests that librarians should do more to identify and evaluate the touchpoints that combine to create the library user experience. Do we even know what our library touchpoints are, and if we do, do we know how they work to provide the desired experience – and ultimately how would we assess if they are working to deliver that experience?

Those are questions that drove Clatworthy to conduct this research. His article describes “the method for innovation for touchpoints.” To do this he and his team developed a method involving cards. You may be familiar with web design research that uses a card sorting system to help users identify their preferences for the organization of the site or terminology being tested for the site. In this research, cards were created to represent the touchpoints of an organization. Creating the cards also helped the team to identify and think through the touchpoints that made up the experience. The cards can then be used to identify a “pain point”, a touchpoint where the experience, from the point of view the user, falls flat or is inconsistent with the totality of the experience.

For example, a library pain point could be the directional signage in the book stacks. Up until that time, each experiential touchpoint, from entering the library to searching the catalog to asking for directions at the “ask here” desk, delivered the experience according to design. But when the user got to the stacks location and failed to successfully navigate to the book’s location, the experience failed. We need to identify the pain points and turn them into successful touchpoints. The card exercise could help to more clearly identify which unit or department in the library is responsible for or associated with a unique touchpoint – or when there is overlap.

So what are the key takeways from the reseach:

The first is that service designers focus upon the orchestration of a service in which the choice of individual touch-points and their relation to other touch-points is important. This requires an understanding not only of individual touch-point qualities, but also of their potentials when combined in particular ways. The second relates to the orchestration of touch-points over time. Common to both of these is an understanding of the parts and the whole and the innumerable alternatives that this affords in relation to how a customer might experience.

What is your next step if you want to get in touch with your touchpoints – presumably to understand better where they are and how they can be part of the overall experience design? The first thing may be to start a conversation in your library about touchpoints, and what they mean to the staff who serve at or create these points. Once there is general consensus about the value of studying and improving touchpoints, a more formal process may be called for to map the touchpoints and learn how they interconnect. A customer journey mapping exercise could help staff to identify the library touchpoints – and whether what happens at those touchpoints is adding up to the best experience or if there are various pain points that need attention. Clatworthy’s paper is a good start for better understanding the role of the touchpoint in the library user experience. It would be great to see more research and scholarly communication – or just practical advice – about touchpoints.