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.

Deep Thoughts from DUX: A challenge to change

This week, I had the pleasure of listening to Mary Popp, our Research and Discovery Services Librarian in DUX, give a talk to my Organizational Informatics class.  Mary talked about a number of things, such convenience and information seeking behavior, discovery services, and faceted searching.  The almost three hour class period flew by and before I knew it, Mary was wrapping up her talk with some sage words of advice I believe bear repeating, thinking about, and talking about.

Mary challenged my class of upcoming information professionals to be change agents.  As she explained, waiting for change to come to you isn’t what will promote a shift in how we work with information in ever-changing environments.  We, the new generation of information professionals, must put time and effort into changing the thinking of our profession.

Mary presented three ways to incite change:


In terms of how we develop new tools and process that facility information seeking, Mary urged to us to consider separating functionality into independent, interchangeable modules.  This would mean that each part, or module, contains what’s necessary to execute one aspect of desired functionality; helping us move to a process where we can selectively implement existing and emerging technologies.

Focus on the customer

Too often we get caught thinking of what’s just ahead, rather than the real reason we embraced the information profession in the first place: the customer.  We can refer to them as the user or patron, but Mary suggested we subscribe to thinking of the customer as the recipient of information good, services and products or idea, which they obtain for a cost.  This cost could be a trade–off of time, resources, or money.  This prompts us to embrace a user-centered approach, where we not only identify user needs, but we anticipate them.

Reduce transaction cost

We must reduce the amount of resources we put into making information goods and services available to customers.  This is not to be understood as “cutting costs”, but rather analyzing, through a logical, layered methodology, and focusing on our customers using behavioral, descriptive, and proprietary user information.  This is the opportunity to flex our critical thinking skills and really hone in on what’s integral and what’s unessential.  It’s why we have to get that graduate degree, right?

The Takeaway

Look beyond the boxes, silos, and the processes.  Instead of focusing on thinking just outside the box, think about how you’re going to change the box.  Advances in technology continue to rock our information worlds.  This won’t stop.  How we access, share, use, discover, and explore our environments through information goes beyond our current definitions of information discovery, access and exploration.  It behooves us to investigate and develop modular, more agile ways of thinking and doing.

My Favorite App: Experience Matters

I recently come across a great new app called Experience Matters.  The app was developed by Joseph Dickerson, a UX architect.

Experience Matters features a simple, easy-to-navigate interface that details excerpts from Dickerson’s book by the same title, links to recent UX articles, a Twitter list that summarizes “This Week in UX”, and a Twitter summary of the user-generated UX hashtag, #UX.  My favorite thing about the app is that is streamlines my UX reading into an easy-to-digest mobile environment.

Experience Matters Main Interface
Experience Matters Main Interface
This Week In UX Interface
This Week In UX Interface

Experience Matters is free and available for the iPhone and the iPod Touch here and for the Android platform here.

Thinking Outloud About User Trust

As a student keen on learning how the user-centered design process works, I’m intrigued by how we, as librarians and information professionals, think about websites as mechanisms that guide our users to the resources they want and need.  I think about this a great deal – as a user of library websites and as an aspiring user experience librarian/developer.

This is a lot to think about, due in part because the library has so many different users.  Not only do we have the faculty, graduate, undergraduate and walk-in users to consider, but also the library staff and their consequential roles as library users.  Here at DUX, we are in the process of rolling out a new catalog, IUCAT Beta, while at the same time working toward a complete library website redesign.  As part of this process, I think a lot about how these library tools will “successfully connect with every student, staff and faculty member to help them feel productive, enthusiastic and valued on every level of their encounter”?[1]

My mind reels.  In the good way.

I recently came across what I think is, a really poignant way to think about our multiple users’ needs: trust.  Provoked by a recent article on UX Mag by Ilana Westerman, I began looking at our library users as customers looking for a variety of products on a library website.  Her article illuminates the basic principle of user trust, through a case study that examined the ways in which a particular design for a healthcare plan website earned consumers’ trust.  The context of the website in the case study – a lot of detailed content used by numerous individuals with a variety of purposes – reminded me of our library users.

Adapting what Westerman outlines as trust for consumers, for library website users, trust might mean:

  1. The library website will do what it claims to do. A user has expectations that the website will live up to its claims, which are assumed to be accurate and unbiased.  For example, most people trust that when they hit the “Hours and Locations” menu item, they will navigate to a page that will show them the correct hours and location of the library.
  2. Information will be correct, complete, and unbiased. When users trust the information and choices presented, they are less likely to feel a need to go elsewhere.
  3. The library website has quality. Users want to feel confident in their choices and we all want to feel confident that our digital experiences are worthwhile and valuable.
  4. “I will be successful.” For library users, there must be a sense that if they follow a process through all required steps, their goals and intention will be met.

I think these four points are obvious in theory, but are difficult to put into practice, particularly when working to a vast array of user’s and needs.  Based on Westerman’s conclusions, and my own perspectives based on my experiences in the DUX department, I think a way to approach trust-building with library websites is through a thoughtful respect for the cognitive load put on the users of library websites.  We want to build websites and other library tools that build user confidence, not ones that burden users with irrelevant material and information, which renders them unsuccessful.

I’m still trying to find a productive space to work out my thoughts on user trust, so I encourage your thoughts and comments as I continue to think about how to construct dependable, quality library websites.  Meanwhile, my mind still reels.  In the good way.


Remotely Researching: Worth a Shot?

A few weeks ago, I attended the LITA National Forum in Columbus, Ohio.  For my first library conference experience, I was gleefully overwhelmed with the wealth of ideas and projects shared by the conference participants and presenters.  (Confession: I am a nerd.  There, I said it.)  Looking over my excitedly scribbled notes, I sought out one of the many titles that had been suggested to read.  On a personal note: I always promise myself to read what others suggest to me, so I felt good about finally following through.

Remote Research: Real Users, Real Time, Real Research proved to live up to the hype.  Not only is it well-written, sharing a vast knowledge in a succinct and organized way, it leaves room for you to explore your ideas about prospective user research projects.  But before I start gushing like a love-struck teenager, let me describe what the authors, Nate Bolt and Tony Tulathaimutte, mean when they talk about remote research.

Simply put, remote research is a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods that make use of Internet tools to do user research on participants who are in another location.  This kind of research allows you to test almost anywhere at some reduced cost (Nate and Tony cover the pros and cons of remote research costs in a dedicated chapter).  Remote research can also provide geographic diversity in results as it observes users where they are, not as they come to you.

What I believe to be the most valuable aspect of remote research is that it is time-aware.  As Nate and Tony point out, “Remote research opens the door to conducting research that also happens at the moment in people’s real lives when they’re performing a task of interest.”  Through live-recruiting, you can get results from users who are invested in what they are doing on your website or interface because they are there for their own reasons.

Sounds amazing, right?  Yet, even as I’m gobbling Nate and Tony’s ideas down, the ever-skeptical part of me begins to rain on my proverbial parade.  What about watching the users’ expressions and observing them during their task?  How does the level of abstraction from the user created by remote research generate empathy for the user?

I wasn’t the only one who had these kinds of doubts – and that’s the beauty of this book.  Much like other books published by Rosenfeld Media,  Remote Research is written in such a way that prompts you, the reader, with in-text case studies, notes, tips, and guest author features that share experiences on what works and what doesn’t.

Nate and Tony also share scripts for how to recruit users and sample elicitation approaches, which gives a context for the remote research methods they describe in detail throughout the book.  They also provide tables that explain the various pros and cons of research tools and software, as they relate to how much time and money you have to spend on your research, as well as system requirements and reliability.

Nate and Tony’s work has given me a lot to think about in terms of how we at DUX might be able to conduct user research for our library website re-design and our new Blacklight catalog.  For whatever phase of a UX research project you’re, or stage in your UX career, I highly recommend delving into this book.  Not only does it get the wheels turning, it provides excellent resources for thinking outside of the user research box.

The Left Behind User

I recently came across an article on the UIE website (or rather, the article came to me from a colleague) by Jared Spool entitled, “The User We’ve Left Out: The Content Governor”. Even as a newbie in the UX realm, I already know a commentary from Jared is worth the read. The opening paragraph immediately rallied my curiosity:

One of the biggest sins an experience designer can commit is to leave an important user out from the design process. If we don’t even recognize the needs of the user, we can’t design great solutions for them. It’s even worse when that user is critical to making the design effective for everyone.

The user to which Jared is referring is the content governor. This is the person who makes sure a website’s information is up-to-date, needs replacing or a good housecleaning. I’m sure many of us have been charged with governing a website that was designed without the content governor’s role in mind.

I run a number of websites in my quest to gain professional experience with information architecture that encourages interaction, writing web content, and working with code. When I work with these sites, my frustration mounts as I deal either with the lack of templates within the page structure or with pages that have strict templates that don’t fit the needs of the content, i.e. a block of text cannot be anything but a block of text. I also become frustrated when I attempt to update a footer, only to find that it is not consistent across all the pages of the site domain. These experiences are challenging because the contexts in which I’m working weren’t created with someone like me, the content governor, in mind.

Jared highlights some important thinking points that have encouraged me to explore how we understand not only the what and why of user experience, but the who. I think this is an important consideration to make: When we design, we must consider the user experience all of the “whos” in our Whoville, whether they are traditional users, those who maintain the website, as well as those who will inherit it.

There are several ways to do this.  For example, Jared points out a need to consider how the design of a CMS interface makes it simple create and manage content. He also suggests a requisite for tools that help content governors, as well as designers and content creators to manage meaningful metadata.

I’d also like to suggest a tool that is often left out and forgotten: commenting in code. Leaving a comment, even as simple as an initialed last updated tag, makes for a streamlined, far less frustrating user experience for the content governor. Leaving comments in code also helps keep communication between multiple users of a site’s content, such as designers, programmers, and content governors, in one place that’s hard to overlook.

Read the article for yourself here, and please leave comments with your suggestions on how to create a better user experience for the content governor.