Usability and User Experience: Related but Different

Today, we’re honored to have a guest contributor.  Silvia C. Zimmermann is founder, CEO and lead experience designer at and currently serves as the President of the Usability Professionals Association (


Our User Experience (UX) industry is moving at such a fast pace that it is sometimes difficult to keep up with new concepts and ideas. When I first started working in the field, the term ‘usability’ did not exist and many of our clients today are still not familiar with the concepts that usability is embracing, let alone with User Experience. Sometimes I really wonder whether we do ourselves a favour when we jump from one concept to another without listening to our clients’ needs.

For me, it is amazing to watch so many usability communities adapt their professional profiles from one movement to the next. For example, with the introduction of the term UX, they quickly became UX professionals, UX consultants or UX designers. However, when having a closer look at their day-to-day activities, they still continue to focus on usability rather than UX.

 Person A asks: 

“As a technical writer, we always think from the user’s perspective, an asset sometimes valued by the managers. Can we move into the field of user experience? Any ideas how and where to start?”

Person B replies:

“An inconsistent or poorly designed user interface increases the need for more user documentation. If you can come up with a simpler user experience, then less user documentation will be required. Depending on how inconsistent or how unnecessarily complicated the software is, this can be a significant saving.

“For the user, the benefits of a simpler user experience are

-Greater productivity
-Reduced need for documentation
-Less documentation to wade through when it is needed, and
-For those users who can never be bothered to read documentation, they will be calling the help desk less often.
“This can lead to your valuable input being sought for future projects at the design stage, rather than at the tail end of the project.

“Aim to be the user champion and pretty soon, people will utilise your skills to assist in, for example, writing business requirements and functional specifications.”

Usability and User Experience are not the Same

There’s no doubt that there is a lot of confusion in the market as well as in our industry as to what the two terms Usability and User Experience really mean. I often see them used interchangeably even though they mean different things. Let me share as an example a conversation I recently found on the technical writing world forum:

The International Standardization Organization (ISO), has defined the two terms as follows (ISO 9241-210):It was interesting to observe that everything Person B is referring to is Usability, not User Experience. A better answer would have been: Yes, you can. But it will take some endeavor from your end because you will have to learn new methods and concepts, and you might also be moving away a bit from pure qualitative research.

  • Usability is the extent to which a product can be used by specified users in a specified context of use to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction.
  • User Experience (UX) on the other hand is all about a person’s perception and responses resulting from the user’s use of a product, system or service. It includes the user’s emotions, beliefs, preferences, perceptions, physical and psychological responses, behaviors and accomplishments that occur before, during and after use.
    User Experience is seen as a consequence of brand image, presentations, functionality, system performance, interactive behavior and assistive capabilities of the interactive system.

Given these two definitions, it’s best to think of usability as a more performance-driven approach, while user experience is a holistic approach to assessing the experience of users. While the first assesses efficiency, effectiveness and subjective satisfaction, the latter has a much broader focus, implicitly suggesting efficiency and effectiveness as being less important.

Usability, when looked at from the perspective of the user’s personal goals, can of course include the kind of perceptual and emotional aspects typically associated with the user experience. Hence, usability criteria can be used to assess some aspects of the user experience, though unfortunately not all. A good user experience needs, for example, to be assessed over time, i.e. it cannot be assessed during a one-hour long usability testing session.

So what does it mean for technical writers who stand “in the shoes” of users when preparing documentation, if they want to move into the field of user experience? Here are some guidelines for determining if and how technical writers should begin the journey:

  1. First and foremost, they need a solid understanding of usability and its underlying concepts. They need to learn how usability is assessed in a usability test. It’s important to understand that usability testing is not a qualitative interview; but rather it assesses effectiveness, efficiency and subjective user satisfaction. The previous CIF Format (now ISO 25062) is a good start to help in identifying the right assessment criteria for a good usability test.
  2. Next,they should understand the differences between usability testing and user experience testing. In a user experience test, both cognitive and affective aspects are implicitly and explicitly assessed. Eye-tracking, electroencephalography and galvanic skin response techniques will help to do this.
  3. User experience practitioners also need a good understanding of the basic concepts of psychology, e.g., human perception, emotion, meaning and belief., among others
  4. New practitioners should also be familiar with the concept of flow, which refers to the “optimal user experience” of “intrinsic enjoyment.” View the great TED video from Mihaly Csikszentmihaly for a good understanding….
  5. Finally, practitioners should learn about the term ‘experience design’ and what it means to practitioners in the field I suggest you read a wonderful article from Marc Hassenzahl on that subject matter: http://www.interaction/

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