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Adam McKenna
Adam McKenna

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What on earth is User Experience?

Article originally posted here.


Unless you've been living your life as a member of the Uncontacted Indians of Brazil, deep within the Amazon rainforest, then it's likely you've heard the term "User Experience".

In fact, you've probably heard the term thrown around more than you would like. It seems as though everyone in the digital sector, and their hip dogs, are experts in this emerging field.

Go to any digital consultancy's website and you'll be barraged with promises that they can convert your old, clunky web application into a "seamless," or "forward-thinking app" with an "unparalleled" user experience.

What on earth are they talking about? Moreover, what on earth am I talking about? Putting the "bullshit bingo" aside, what does "user experience" actually refer to? Has the term become so overused that it has lost all meaning? Well, no, because it never had a clear definition to begin with.

Let's address the elephant in the room. What on earth is User Experience?

Definitions of User Experience (and the problem)

Here's the crux of the matter: a plethora of definitions do exist, but professionals, researchers, and experts in the field have been unable to agree upon a single definition.

For instance, in 2007 a collective of human-computer interaction (HCI) professors, including Effie Lai-Chong Law and Arnold P.O.S. Vermeere, convened in an attempt to establish a so-called "user experience manifesto."

Alas, the document was never complete, and even now, over ten years later, the digital sector is rife with disagreement, squabbles, and good old fashion quick-draw matches*.

At this point, I can almost hear the readers thoughts: "Well, I definitely know what user experience is! I'm a bloody three-time award winning web interaction designer!" Or, something along those lines. And, to be fair, they wouldn't be wrong. There are definitions floating around.

For example, the ISO 9241-210 standard, has a very clear, commonly-used definition of user experience:

[a] person's perceptions and responses resulting from the use and/or anticipated use of a product, system or service.

The problem, however, isn't finding a definition -- it's finding a definition that everyone can agree upon.

Well, why can't professionals just agree on a single definition, like the ISO standard?

Exploring the metrics

Well, although there are numerous factors, the main cause of frustration in the debate is the question of whether usability is a metric of user experience or not. After all, user experience is a subjective concept, whereas usability is, for the most part, objective.

ISO 9241-210 also have a definition for usability:

The effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction with which specified users achieve specified goals in particular environments.

In the context of digital artefacts, such as websites, mobile apps, etc., usability encapsulates scads of factors: accessibility, performance, user interface considerations, and task completion time are just a few examples.

But, despite the objective nature of usability, could it still be considered a metric of user experience? After all, it's hard to deny that these factors contribute to the overall experience and feelings that a user has when using an application.

Take the following definition of the relationship between user experience and usability:

Usability, when interpreted from the perspective of the users' personal goals, can include the kind of perceptual and emotional aspects typically associated with user experience. Usability criteria can be used to assess aspects of user experience.

This definition, also sourced from (you guessed it) the ISO standards, argues that usability is not only related to objective metrics, such as performance and accessibility, but also includes more abstract metrics, such as the user's awareness, emotions, and feelings towards a given system.

With that definition in mind, usability and user experience require co-existence. The user experience of an application depends on an application's usability in order to elicit a positive emotional response from the user.

Can you think of many instances when an application has be unusable and you have felt positively towards it? Sure, these instances do occur, but they are few and far between.

In the same vein, can you think of examples when you have responded with positive emotion to an application because of how usable it was? I know I can.

The reliance that the two metrics have upon one-another is not all-encompassing, but it is certainly substantial.

Yet, if these metrics are so dependant upon one-another, why spend so much energy debating their differences?

The critical difference lies in the nature of each metric.

As stated, usability is, for the most part, objective.

If a task cannot be complete, you would know what the task was and why it could not be complete.

If an application has poor speed, you can perform a benchmark test and meticulously assess the performance of each line of code.

If a user with accessibility requirements cannot access a button with their keyboard, you would know what the button was and what would need to done to ensure that the user could use it.

Though not always the case, most usability issues convert directly into tangible tasks.

User experience, based upon the aforementioned ISO definition, is on the other hand heavily subjective. What metric could be more subjective than a person's emotions and subconscious feelings? If a user responses with negative emotions to a system that is otherwise usable during a user experience evaluation, the chances are that it will be difficult for both the evaluator and the user to quantify the perceived "issue."

A person's emotions cannot be quantified with a benchmark test. We cannot discover the 'line of code' pertaining to a user's emotion. If a user dislikes a system, that can be due to a negative association in that person's mind, or because the system does not cater to (or fails to consider) some aspect of the user's culture. Or, it can be a completely unrelated factor.

Of course, although user experience professionals have techniques to drill deeper and create solutions to the user experience issues that they discover, they face a different challenge to the team responsible for identifying and resolving usability issues.

User Satisfaction

It is hard to deny that user experience and usability have different natures. One is subjective and the other is objective. But, it is also difficult to deny that they depend upon, and are relative to, one-another.

A system with poor usability is likely to deliver a poor user experience. So, perhaps it is prudent to look beyond the definitions of both metrics and instead discuss the overarching issue: let's talk about the outcome. Let's talk about user satisfaction.

Because ultimately, if a system is usable, but a user has a negative experience - for whatever hard-to-quantify reason - then the user may decide to use an alternative application, even if their goals are achieved within your system. In this situation, the user has low user satisfaction.

Similarly, if the system manages to emotionally resonate with the user - again, for whatever hard-to-quantify reason - but the user cannot complete their goals, then their overall user satisfaction will be low, and they will seek an alternative application to solve their goals.

When discussing the user experience of an application, usability (and all the metrics that define it) cannot be neglected. The ultimate goal of delivering a great user experience is user satisfaction - and a user cannot be satisfied unless their goals are achievable with your system.

Applications exist to solve problems. But, without usability, a user cannot use your system to solve their problem. And, if the user's problem is not being solved, a poor user experience has been delivered, right?


There are many of us that work in the digital sector and have our own interpretations of what user experience is, and that's fine. The problem is the neglect of the aspects of an application that contribute to the overall user satisfaction.

As long as the user is ultimately satisfied with your product, you can rest easy knowing a great user experience has been delivered.

To do so, however, it is necessary to look at the bigger picture and, whether user experience professionals wish to accept it or not, usability is a vital piece of the puzzle.

So, instead of shunning away usability metrics during our user experience discussions, let's instead embrace them with open arms and consider the overall user satisfaction.

Thanks for reading.


Abeysiri, L. and Weerawarna, N. T. (2017) Usability and user experience towards an experience economy. Technology and Management (NCTM), National Conference on (pp. 81-86). IEEE.

Davis, F. D. (1989) Perceived Usefulness, Perceived Ease of Use, and User Acceptance of Information Technology. The Management Information Systems Quarterly, Vol 13 (3), pp. 319-340.

Glanznig, M. (2012) User experience research: Modelling and describing the subjective. Interdisciplinary Description of Complex Systems: INDECS, 10(3), 235-247.

Kaye, J. J., Boehner, K., Laaksolahti, J. and Ståhl, A. (2007) Evaluating experience-focused HCI. Proceedings of the CHI 2007 Conference, Extended Abstracts, ACM Press, San Jose, CA

Law, E. L. C., Vermeeren, A. P., Hassenzahl, M. and Blythe, M. (2007) Towards a UX manifesto. In Proceedings of the 21st British HCI Group Annual Conference on People and Computers: HCI... but not as we know it-Volume 2 (pp. 205-206). British Computer Society.

Vermeeren, A. P., Law, E. L-C., Roto, V., Obrist, M., Hoonhout, J. and Väänänen-Vainio-Mattila, K. (2010) User Experience Evaluation Methods: Current State and Development Needs. 6th Nordic Conference on HumanComputer Interaction. ACM, New York, pp. 521-530.

Vermeeren, A. P., Roto, V. and Väänänen, K. (2016) Design-inclusive UX research: design as a part of doing user experience research. Behaviour & Information Technology, 35(1), 21-37.

Top comments (1)

felipperegazio profile image
Felippe Regazio • Edited

I live in brazil and thats right. but lets think: ux is not a software development concept, but a design concept, right? so, even the indians has taught in ux for a weapon or a tool, for example. great post dude!