Usability vs. User Experience: What's the difference?

Accessibility and usability are two related aspects of creating a web that works for everyone. Their goals, approaches, and guidelines overlap. So it’s effective to tackle them together when designing websites or apps. Let’s start with usability. Usability is essential for creating exceptional experiences. But what exactly is it?

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What is usability?

UX and usability are often confused, but they are not the same. It is one of the key components that drive an enjoyable user experience. While it’s true that UX started out as a usability discipline, UX has evolved into much more than usability. It also focuses on other aspects of the user experience.

Usability is a quality attribute that assesses how easy user interfaces are to use. The word “usability” also refers to methods for improving ease of use during the design process.

By this definition, usability is a quality feature of the user interface. A very important aspect of UX, but the total user experience is an even broader concept.

One of the most common myths in UX is that good usability is more pleasing to the eye. But it’s impossible for something to ‘look useful’ or ‘feel useful.’ A design in itself is not usable or unusable. Its features, together with the user, what the user wants to do with it, and the user’s environment, determine its level of usability.

Usability, look and feel
Usability is about the ease of use of a product. Not what it looks or feels like.

What is the difference between usability and utility?

Usability is the second level of user experience. As you can see in this image from the Nielsen Norman Group, utility takes center stage. Usability is about making features easy to use and enjoyable. Utility is about providing features that users need in the first place. UX starts by being useful. Second comes usability.

Usability and utility are both important for the overall brand experience. It doesn’t matter that something is easy if it’s not what a user wants. All your efforts to build the most user-friendly feature will fail if that feature is not needed.

Utility and usability
Usability is about making features easy to use and enjoyable. Utility is about providing features that users need in the first place

Only when you combine usability with utility do products become useful to users. Usability is also important because it is a necessary condition for survival. Users will leave you for the competition if your product is not usable.

  • If users can't find the product, they can't buy it.
  • If the website doesn't answer the user's questions, they leave.
  • If a website is difficult to use, people leave.
  • If users get lost on a website, they don't come back.

Leaving is the first line of defense when users encounter difficulties. So usability is important. Big time. Because if users cannot achieve their goals, they look for an alternative solution. And they are often numerous and easy to find.

Utility + Usability = Usefulness
Only when you combine usability with utility do products become useful to users.

The five components of a usable interface

I may have given you the impression that usability is only about the ease of use of a product. But it’s more. A usable interface consists of five parts. You need to make sure designs are efficient, effective, engaging, easy to learn, and error-tolerant if you want them to succeed.

5 components of a usable interface
A usable interface consists of five parts.

1. Effectiveness

Effectiveness is about helping users perform actions accurately. There are many different ways to provide support. The key is to be as informative as possible in a meaningful way for the user. For instance:

  • Design a credit card field so that you can only enter a valid credit card number. This prevents errors and helps users do their job.
  • Make links active and describe them accurately.
  • Focus on one action per page or item
  • Create useful navigation systems and search functions
  • Provide easy-to-understand help documentation or clear contact options.

2. Efficiency

Efficiency is often confused with effectiveness. But efficiency is all about speed. How fast can the user get the job done? Once users have learned the design, how quickly can they complete tasks?

  • Avoid interruptions such as forced logins or pop-ups.
  • Make forms easy to fill in.
  • Think about how many steps a user needs to reach a goal. Can this be reduced?
  • Or develop meaningful shortcuts for power users. For example, consider the number of hours you saved using commands C and V to copy and paste text.

3. Engagement

How pleasant is it to use the design? Engagement occurs when the user finds the product pleasant and satisfying to use. The right layouts, readable typography, and ease of navigation all come together. To give the user the right interaction and make it engaging. For instance:

  • The clearer and simpler the language used in your product. The more likely your information will have the right impact on the user and the actions they can take.
  • Present a clear, logical hierarchy of information. Organize content into manageable chunks using headings and subheadings. Emphasize important information at the beginning and end of interactive sequences. Make paragraphs clear and recognizable to avoid flooding the user with a wall of text.
  • Combine aesthetic appeal with readability. Choose fonts that are easy to read. That means high contrast to the background and font sizes large enough for users to read.

4. Error tolerance

When an error occurs, ensure that users recover from it and return to what they were doing. Error tolerance supports a range of user actions. And it shows an error only in genuine situations. For example:

  • Limit the possibility of doing the wrong thing. Add warnings and autocorrect functions to cut errors.
  • Provide informative feedback on system status and make errors easy to diagnose.
  • Provide a back button to undo actions. Or offer the option to reset what they did and start over.
  • Avoid broken links and provide a good 'not found page' if they come across it. A well-designed 404 page will try to help the user return to a positive experience.

5. Ease of learning

How easily can users accomplish basic tasks when they first encounter the design? Or when they use it again after a while? Do they still find their way within your product Examples to support ease of learning:

  • Mimic the real world in concepts, icons, and language. Use designs that fit a user's existing mental models. So, for example, virtual buttons look a lot like real buttons.
  • Follow established standards on function and layout. Such as logo positioning, navigation, or search functionality.
  • Keep the content consistent.

Once you understand usability, you need to know how to measure it in your designs. How do you know if your products are usable? The only way to get there is to measure usability during the entire design process, from the first wireframes to high-fidelity prototypes. In our online course, we offer you different methods and best practices.

This article is taken from our newly released course, where you learn the foundations of User Experience in 20 videos. Want to know if it’s for you? Try for free →