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.

6 thoughts on “Usability And User Experience – There Is A Difference”

  1. Usability is Bell Labs’ testing voice dialing. UX is Live Nation running rock tours. They seek to build an emotional user experience, foster loyalty, and draw repeat purchases. Are we that passionate in libraries?

  2. Good to see you covering the topic! For me, with UX in my job title, it is a trinity of usability (inspired by Krug, etc. ) ethnographic research leading to good user experiences (Nancy Foster and Andrew Asher), and designing compelling customer experiences (you!) SLA in Chicago will have two sessions on UX in July- both on Wed. July 18th. Cheers, Debra Kolah (convener of the SLA UX Caucus)

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