Usability vs. user experience
August 24, 2001
Unfortunately, people seem to confuse the two, but I ran across a nice analogy from Lee McCormick:

User experience = a road trip

Usability = road layout and signage

User experience is the sum of all elements: sights, sounds, sensations. The glare of sun, the hum of tires, the sweep of curves. Usability is the "can I find my way" part of the experience.

Sure it doesn't catch the full dimensions of the differences, but it's concrete example that I think's pretty clear to most people. ::

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Your thoughts…

Good example. But it also fogs my mind. I would think that information architecture would be the road layout and perhaps even the signage. Futhermore, usability would indicate that the road trip was well-structured for most people and the road layout and signage was easy and friendly to follow. In my opinion, the overall experience would be the sum of all usable and unusable elements.

Isn't usability better defined by its relationship to information architecture? Likewise, isn't the user experience better defined by how usability augments and defines it?

The user experience is something that is almost tangible. We can almost touch the user experience and we can almost feel what it is when we hear about it. However, information architecture and usability are really just attributes, or qualities, of the user experience.

Here is my analolgy:

User experience = road trip via automobile

Information architecture = roads built for automobiles

Usability = easy to read signs on the road

A good user experience would be a road trip that was on a good road with easy to read signs to guide the way. The experience is better when the usability is better. Therefore, if the signs were easy to read and there were many of them, then the trip would probably be even better. But maybe not. That is what user testing is for, right?

John S. Rhodes @ 08.26.2001

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Nice refinement. I like it. To extend your comments:

I'd say information architect/interaction design is making sure the roads go where people want to go. Sometimes it's the most direct route possible (for example I-5 between Los Angeles and San Francisco), sometimes it might be more meadering (such as the scenic, but indirect Pacific Coast Highway).

There's some nice extensions to this analogy. Often the roads can't go exactly where you'd like them. Physical roads have to be routed around lakes and mountains and toward existing cities and towns. IA/ID has to work around business, cultural and technological constraints. And sometimes there are different roads for different needs -- car pool lanes, separate truck routes in mountainous areas -- just as there may need to be separate-but-overlaid IA/ID for different users.

As far as the number of signs, if I'm heading to the airport, I'll probably want lots of signs. If I'm out for a Sunday drive and don't mind getting a little lost as long as it's scenic, then lots of signs isn't as important. Just as subtle, or even intentionally hard-to-use interface might be appropriate for an "exploratory" site, as long as I buy into the idea that I'm exploring and I'm comfortable that I can locate myself if need be.

george @ 08.27.2001

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I like you example. I just think we should always remember that usability is to make a user experience as pleasant as it can be but it's important to be able to think in general. We can't make a road perfect for everyone but we should try to give everyone the possibility to use it quite simply. What a task!

Design @ 04.27.2004

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I like to use this analogy to coworkers who don't understand the difference.

User Experience is similar to Total Customer Experience, an element companies like Nordstroms, Starbucks, and Target give a lot of attention. The entire journey that a customer encounters from start to finish, (finding the store, parking car, shopping, paying, and leaving)
The same analogy could be applied to web user experience, the entire capsulated journey a user has on a website.

On the other hand, usability is task analysis and management. To extend the analogy, usability of Total Customer Experience in a store would be the efficiency of checkout, ample aisle space, easy to use shopping carts, escalators and elevators.

User experience encompasses much more than that, as it involves the brand, the lightning, the people, all touch points tangible and intangible that the user encounters.

Jesse James Garrett illustrates it well in his famous "elements of user experience" diagram. www.jjg.net

Does my analogy work?

Jeremiah O.

– Jeremiah @ 07.29.2004

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I like to use this analogy to coworkers who don't understand the difference.

User Experience is similar to Total Customer Experience, an element companies like Nordstroms, Starbucks, and Target give a lot of attention. The entire journey that a customer encounters from start to finish, (finding the store, parking car, shopping, paying, and leaving)
The same analogy could be applied to web user experience, the entire capsulated journey a user has on a website.

On the other hand, usability is task analysis and management. To extend the analogy, usability of Total Customer Experience in a store would be the efficiency of checkout, ample aisle space, easy to use shopping carts, escalators and elevators.

User experience encompasses much more than that, as it involves the brand, the lightning, the people, all touch points tangible and intangible that the user encounters.

Jesse James Garrett illustrates it well in his famous "elements of user experience" diagram. www.jjg.net

Does my analogy work?

Jeremiah O.

– jeremiah @ 07.29.2004

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