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Discovery & User Experience

Usability or User Experience?

We throw around a lot of jargon as libraries and information professionals. Much of our professional vocabulary is specific to our profession, and can be used without doubt that it will be misunderstood. For example, we know what is meant when a colleague talks about an OPAC or a bib record. I’ve noticed an increasing level of ambiguity when it comes to how we talk about usability and user experience. While we might use them as such, these terms are not interchangeable.

User experience (UX) entails all aspects of the user’s experience when interacting with the product, service, environment or facility. For example, the DUX department of IU Libraries is concerned with all aspects of the library user’s experiences with library interfaces, such as the library website and the library catalog, IUCAT. User experience goals are generally adjectives that describe the overall experience, for example:

  • Satisfying
  • Enjoyable
  • Fun
  • Entertaining
  • Motivating
  • Rewarding
  • Aesthetically pleasing
  • Emotionally fulfilling

These adjectives describe the user’s experience as he or she interacts with the system or interface.

Usability falls under the umbrella of user experience. It’s the tactical part of user experience concerned with the effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction with which specific users achieve specific goals in specific environments. For example, as we build the new IUCAT Beta interface, we conduct usability testing to measure aspects such as:

1. Effectiveness
How well does the system or interface is doing its job?

2. Efficiency
How efficient and easy it is to use?

3. Safety
How well does it protect users from hazards and mistakes? How well does it help users recover from hazards or mistakes?

4. Utility
How many suitable functions does it support?

5. Learnability
How easy is it to use?

6. Memorability
How easy is it to remember to use?

Usability refers to the ease in which a user can accomplish a particular goal.

I like to think about the difference between usability and user experience when I examine my shoe collection.

Usability         userexperience

Usability vs. User Experience

Crocs (left image, source: are functional shoes that help me easily, safely and effectively weed my muddy garden in early spring.  The high heels sandals (right image, source: do not help me accomplish any usability goals; they are impractical and not utilitarian.  But, I love high heels.  I love the way I look and feel when I wear them,  thus providing me with a satisfying user experience.

Think about the last time you talked about usability and user experience.  A general rule of thumb when discerning the difference between user experience is to think about the question you’re asking:

Did the user have as satisfying an experience as possible? That’s user experience.

Can the user accomplish their goal?  That’s usability.

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