The difference between Usability and Experience Design
I hear a lot of people using "Usability" and "Experience design" interchangeably. This is quite a big mistake. They are both important for product success, both are tested differently, both are successfully crafted differently, and they both need quite different focus and skill sets. Usability answers the question: "Can the user accomplish the goal"?
Experience Design answers the question: "Is the user delighted"?
Imagine you go to a retail website to buy a pair of jeans. You arrive at the homepage and easily find and navigate to the jeans that you want. You pick your size and the colour. You add them to your cart without a hitch, pay and check out. Job done: awesome.
This is usability. Your customers can easily buy products off your website. They understand what to do, it all works as expected, it's easy, and fast.
Ok. It's 5 days later and your jeans have arrived, but 3 days later than promised. They are the wrong size and the wrong brand. You can't find out how to send them back and ask for your order to be filled properly. None of this information is with your package. You go to the website and after 10mins of searching find a phone number. You're not sure whether it's a customer service number or not but you call it anyway. You listen to 5mins of options to choose from on a recording before you even get to speak to a human. Finally a tired sounding man sighs and then says "whateverjeansdotcomcustomerservicehowcanihelp?". You begin to explain your problem and he interrupts you and transfers you to somewhere else. A woman picks up and asks you what you want. You explain your problem again. She tells you that you have to go to a post office and send the package back yourself. Then you need to fax them the receipt and they'll reimburse the postage costs. She needs to refund your money for the jeans to you and needs you to go back to the website, order and pay all over again...
Will you be ordering from here again?
This is experience design. I can delight you by taking full responsibility for my mistake, and ensuring that you not only get your order the same day, but that you also are compensated for the mistake. I can also take into consideration that because I sell jeans, sometimes people will order the wrong size, so I can delight you by not penalising you for it. Instead I will include in every package a ready paid empty mail bag so you can just drop it in a post box and return it at no cost. I might determine that my customers want to experiment and try products they have never bought before. I can create a whole experience around that so that people can select a whole bunch of clothes, we ship them out to you, you try them all on and send us back what you don't want to keep. We'll charge you for the ones you keep, you don't need to go back on the website to do anything.
Delving into your user journey, seeing that this is a single purchase, I question needing to have to add it to a cart. After all in a store you wouldn't grab a shopping cart or a basket if you are about to buy one item. If I wanted to improve on the usability, I might investigate this in more depth. Can I reduce friction even more? If you are a repeat customer, can I remember your payment and shipping details for you too?
Can you see any other opportunities? I'd be learning about my customers as much as possible. Not just about the things that they tell me they want, but also by using ingenious methods to gain insights into the things they never knew they wanted. What are the unarticulated needs? What is my competition doing and how can I be a better? How do I give you a totally kickass experience that you will love and remember? How can I reach you on an emotional level?
If I have a physical store, I'll do more. I'll want to ensure that the entire experience of our brand, be it online or in the store, is always the same kind of awesomeness that you deserve as a customer, or even as a potential customer. What do you think the Amazon physical store would be like if there was one?
The Four Seasons hotels have found a common pattern where people enter their hotel room, throw their bag on the floor and coat on the bed, and then drop into the armchair...and exhale. They refer to this as something like "the exhale moment". You want to savour that moment. They have ensured that everything is in place to make that moment especially amazing. The seat itself, the proximity of reading material and the mini bar...(more about this in Tim Brown's book). Where is the "exhale moment" in your software product? I think it has its place in experience design as well.
Things you might talk about when considering usability:
- Interaction design
- Path to completion
- Funnel analysis
- Time on task
- Eye tracking
In short, you are in the minutia of user interface design.
Things you might talk about when considering experience design:
- End-to-end customer journey
- Real world context
- Social science
- Perceptual psychology
- Design Thinking
- Environmental design
It's a much larger subject area than usability. It involves a lot of diverse and complex skill sets, and requires a solid understanding of psychology, business strategy, design principles, brand strategy...it is cross-disciplinary.
As a developer, you should know all about usability, especially if you are a front-end developer. You should have a fantastic grasp on how to lay things out and know all the rules and how to break them. This is not the sole responsibility of the "UX" person on your team. It is your responsibility too. It's fundamental if you want to create a quality software product. Usability is the responsibility of the team.
The real crux of the job for experience designers is being outstanding at experience design. This does not mean that as an experience designer you don't care about usability. On the contrary, it's one of the keys to success. On the other hand, you should know where the areas of improvement are, how to find out about the ones you don't suspect, know how to benchmark and measure quantitatively and qualitatively, and know the customers. You should know what they want, what they want but can't articulate, what they need from your services/products, who they are, who they might be in future, how to persuade them, know how they behave in every different scenarios, be able to understand if this reconciles with the current business strategy and know what to do if it doesn't.
Where does visual design fit in?
It is fundamentally important to have excellent visual aesthetics for your product. There is plenty of evidence about what a huge difference it makes and I rarely find anyone argue that it isn't. The mistake here is to think that this is the only aspect of design to take into consideration when actually designing a software. When you are designing a service, there will always be visual touchpoints and these need to be cared for as much as any other detail in your work. If the experience is awful like in our jeans buying example above, do you think you'd be more impressed with the service if the website and packaging looked stunning? On the other hand, do you think that you would even consider buying jeans from the website if it looked terrible?
It's not "usability design" it's just "usability". Why does this fall to the designer on so many occasions? It is the responsibility of the whole software team to ensure that what they are making is at least usable. It's called "experience design" because it is a practice of design. Design is fundamentally about problem solving. Innovation is a design problem, for example. Design is about solving problems by finding out what they are exactly, and then executing the best solution possible. Jonathan Ive does a lovely job of summing up what it means to be a good designer in this interview. He's an industrial designer rather than an experience designer, but still design is design.
I think that the following quotes sum it up neatly:
"Design needs to be plugged into human behavior. Design dissolves in behavior." -Naoto Fukasawa
"A lot of what we are doing is getting design out of the way." -Jonathan Ive
To conclude, if you are worrying exclusively about what colour that "Add to cart" button is, rather than considering whether you need a cart at all, and finding out what to do instead...You're not doing experience design.