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The Difference Between UX and Usability

By Michael Heraghty on November 24th, 2011

People sometimes ask, “what’s the difference between user experience (UX) and usability?”. Let me try to explain, by borrowing from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

users's hierarchy of needs: 1. functional (it works), 2. usable (it's easy to use), 3. pleasurable (it's fun to use)

Let us assume that the user of any software has three hierarchical types of needs:

1. The software must work; it must be functional. This is the user’s most basic need.

Making sure software works is a prerequisite to good usability and a good user experience.

2. The software should be easy to use. Over the last decade, websites in particular have become more user-friendly, thanks partly to the spread of usability concepts (see Jakob Neilsen), but moreso to the pressures of competition.

When a software tool has no competitors, users will tolerate bad usability, so long as the software is functional. But when there is a choice, users will plump for the tool that is easier to use. Usability is concerned with software’s intuitiveness, its ease of use.

3. The software should be pleasurable to use. When competition is fierce, the software that wins is not only easy to use, but also enjoyable to use.

Steve Jobs recognised this. Donald Norman, usability pioneer, recognised this in his book Emotional Design. Norman argues that software was more effective when users found it aesthetically appealing, or when they formed an other emotional connection to the software, e.g. when they found it aesthetically appealing. As he put it, “attractive things work better”.

User experience concerns designing software to be usable AND pleasurable or otherwise emotionally engaging for users.

5 responses to “The Difference Between UX and Usability”

  1. […] (UX) and usability?”. Let me try to explain, by borrowing from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Link – Trackbacks Posted in User experience (UX) | Permalink. ← easy internetbanking […]

  2. Kshitij Bhardwaj says:

    Dear Sir, I am a final year bachelor of design (UX/UI) student. As I have read and understood and also according to ISO standards Usability is effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction with which a user of a specified set of group achieves a specified goal in a particular environment. Check it here:

    UX is subset of Usability not other way round.


  3. Kshitij, thanks for your contribution.

    The technical ISO definition of usability indeed relates to the user’s (or users’) effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction in relation to specified goal(s). I was aiming to use plain English terms — I would describe the above as ‘ease of use’.

    Since circa the early 2000s, leaders in the field of usability/HCI such as Donald Norman conceded that analysing ‘effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction’ wasn’t enough. We need to look at the more holistic ‘user experience’ — e.g. what is the emotional state of the user when engaging with the software?

    It may be effective, and the user may feel satisfied that they have achieved their goal (good usability), but, beyond that, what feelings does the software evoke in the user? Does it for example create aesthetic pleasure, the way they feel when they see a beautiful picture (good user experience … assuming the product is also usable)?

    That is why I argue that usability is in fact a subset of user experience.

  4. […] a good article about the difference between user experience (UX) and […]

  5. Mal Jago says:

    Nice and simple and a question I continually get asked by clients. “We already have a useability firm”