What is User Experience, Anyway?June 3th 2018
Unless you’ve been living your life as a member of the Uncontacted Indians of Brazil, deep within the Amazon rainforest, chances are you have encountered the term ‘User Experience’ - and probably more than you would like.
These days, every digital designer and their dog are supposed experts in this realm; withholding the power to convert your old clunky web application into a seamless new age experience that could otherwise only be experienced in state of euphoria…
So, the term User Experience is so overused that it has basically lost all meaning, right? Well, that would be correct if the term had a clear definition to begin with.
With that in mind, let’s address the elephant in the room: what is User Experience, anyway?
Definitions of User Experience (and their problems)
The short answer is: though a plethora of definitions exist, professionals, researchers and experts in the field are having a difficult time agreeing on a concise definition.
For instance, in 2007 a collective of human-computer interaction (HCI) professors, including Effie Lai-Chong Law and Arnold P.O.S. Vermeere, convened in an attempt to establish a so-called user experience manifesto. In the end, the document was never produced and it would seem even now, ten years later, the user experience industry is rife with disagreement, sqwabbles and good old fashion quick draw matches*.
At this point, I can hear the readers thoughts: “Well, I definitely know what user experience is! I’m a bloody three-time award winning web interaction designer!” etc. and that wouldn’t be an incorrect statement.
There are a number of definitions floating around; The ISO 9241-210 standard, for example, has a very clear, commonly-used definition of user experience:
[a] person's perceptions and responses resulting from the use and/or anticipated use of a product, system or service.
The problem, however, isn’t finding a definition; it’s finding a definition that everyone can agree upon.
So, why can’t professionals just agree on a singular definition, such as the ISO standard?
Exploring the metrics
Well, although there are a number of contributive factors, the main cause of frustration between UX professionals is the question of whether usability is really a metric of user experience, of whether it is a completely different entity. After all, user experience is a very subjective concept, whereas usability is, for the most part, objective.
For example, ISO 9241-210 also have a definition for usability:
The effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction with which specified users achieve specified goals in particular environments.
In the context of digital artefacts, such as website, mobile apps, etc., usability encapsulates scads of factors; accessibility, application performance, user interface considerations and task completion time are just a few examples.
But, is usability actually a metric of user experience? It is hard to deny that these factors contribute to the overall experience and feelings a user has of an application. Take the following definition of the relationship between UX and usability:
Usability, when interpreted from the perspective of the users' personal goals, can include the kind of perceptual and emotional aspects typically associated with user experience. Usability criteria can be used to assess aspects of user experience.
This definition, also sourced from the ISO standards, argues that usability is not just related to objective metrics, such as performance and accessibility, but also includes more abstract metrics, such as the user’s awareness, emotions and feelings towards the system.
It would appear as if the two metrics - usability and user experience - require co-existence. The user experience of an application surely depends on an application to be usable in order to elicit a positive emotional response to a system. Can you think of many instances wherein an application has be unusable and you have felt positive towards it? Sure, these instances occur, but they are few and far between.
In the same vein, can you think of examples wherein you have responded emotionally positively to a system because of how usable it was? I know I can. The reliance that the two metrics have upon one-another is not all-encompassing, but it is certainly substantial.
If they are so dependant upon one another, why spend so much energy debating their differences?
The critical difference lies in the nature of each metric. Usability is, for the most part, objective. If a task cannot be complete, one would typically know what the task was and why it could not be complete; if an application is performing slowly, one could perform a benchmark test and meticulously discover the performance of each line of code; if an accessibility user cannot access a button with their keyboard, one would know what the button was and what would need to done to ensure the user could use it in future usage. Though not always the case, most usability issues convert naturally into tangible tasks.
User experience, based upon the aforementioned ISO definition, is heavily subjective, for what metric is more subjective and relative than a person’s emotions and subconscious feelings? If a user responses emotionally negatively to a system that is otherwise usable during a user experience evaluation, chances are it will be difficult not only for the evaluator to quantify the perceived ‘issue’, but also for the user themself.
A person’s emotions cannot be quantified like a benchmark test; we cannot discover the ‘line of code’ pertaining to a users emotion. If a user emotionally dislikes a system, that could be due to some negative association in that person’s mind, or perhaps because the system does not cater to (or fails to consider) some aspect of the users culture.
Of course, although user experience professionals have techniques to drill deeper and discover solutions to the discovered UX issues, it is certainly a completely difference challenge than discovering solutions to usability issues.
It is hard to deny that user experience and usability are different metrics, but it is also difficult to deny that they heavily depend upon, and are relative to, one-another. A system with poor usability is, for the most part, likely to deliver a poor user experience, for example. So perhaps it is prudent to look beyond the definitions of both metrics, and discuss the overarching issue: let’s instead talk about user satisfaction.
Because ultimately, if a system is usable, but a user has a negative user experience - for whatever hard-to-quantify reasons - then the user may decide to use an alternative application, even if their goals are achieved within the system. In this situation, it can be stated that the user satisfaction is low.
Similarly, if the system manages to emotionally resonate with the user - again, for whatever hard-to-quantify reasons - but the user cannot complete their goals, then it is likely their overall user satisfaction with the system is low and they will seek an alternative application wherein their goals can be achieved.
When discussing the user experience of an application, usability (and all the metrics that define it) cannot be neglected, for the ultimate goal of delivering a great user experience is user satisfaction - and a user cannot be satisfied unless their goals are achieved.
Generally speaking, applications exist to solve problems, and if the user’s problem is not solved, then how can it be argued that a great user experience has been delivered?
There are many of us whom work in the realms of user experience, and have their own interpretations of what user experience is, and that’s fine. The problem is neglecting aspects of an application that contribute to the overall user experience.
As long as the user is ultimately satisfied with the usage of your product, you can rest easy knowing a great user experience has been delivered.
To do so, however, it is necessary to look at the bigger picture and, whether user experience professionals wish to accept it or not, usability is a vital piece of the puzzle.
So, instead of shunning away usability metrics during our user experience discussions, let’s instead embrace them with open arms and consider the overall user satisfaction.
Thanks for reading.
Abeysiri, L. and Weerawarna, N. T. (2017) Usability and user experience towards an experience economy. Technology and Management (NCTM), National Conference on (pp. 81-86). IEEE.
Davis, F. D. (1989) Perceived Usefulness, Perceived Ease of Use, and User Acceptance of Information Technology. The Management Information Systems Quarterly, Vol 13 (3), pp. 319-340.
Glanznig, M. (2012) User experience research: Modelling and describing the subjective. Interdisciplinary Description of Complex Systems: INDECS, 10(3), 235-247.
Kaye, J. J., Boehner, K., Laaksolahti, J. and Ståhl, A. (2007) Evaluating experience-focused HCI. Proceedings of the CHI 2007 Conference, Extended Abstracts, ACM Press, San Jose, CA
Law, E. L. C., Vermeeren, A. P., Hassenzahl, M. and Blythe, M. (2007) Towards a UX manifesto. In Proceedings of the 21st British HCI Group Annual Conference on People and Computers: HCI… but not as we know it-Volume 2 (pp. 205-206). British Computer Society.
Vermeeren, A. P., Law, E. L-C., Roto, V., Obrist, M., Hoonhout, J. and Väänänen-Vainio-Mattila, K. (2010) User Experience Evaluation Methods: Current State and Development Needs. 6th Nordic Conference on HumanComputer Interaction. ACM, New York, pp. 521-530.
Vermeeren, A. P., Roto, V. and Väänänen, K. (2016) Design-inclusive UX research: design as a part of doing user experience research. Behaviour & Information Technology, 35(1), 21-37.