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User Experience = Usability + X?

User experience, or UX, has been one of the biggest buzzwords of recent years and has practically superseded the usability concept. Even the international Usability Professionals Association (UPA) changed its name to User Experience Professionals Association (UXPA) in 2012. This change is also reflected in relevant technical literature, such as "User Experience Design", "Quantifying the User Experience", "Measuring the User Experience" or "The UX Book". Looking deeper into these books, one might be surprised, however, to find 80-90 % classical usability approaches and methods that were already contained in "old" usability books. All this conveys the impression that user experience is little more than just a new name for usability. But this wouldn't do justice to these recent developments.

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How much do small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the software industry actually know about usability and user experience? A research study as part of the Design4Xperience project at the Stuttgart Media University HdM, which was subsidized by the German Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, dealt with this question. The result? Little do they know! At least, the participants were able to name some core aspects of the official definition of "usability". When it came to user experience, however, most were only able to give synonyms. But to think that this only applies to people working in the industry would be wrong. Even in science, usability and UX are often used synonymously. In view of this superficial understanding of the concepts it is difficult to draw a line between the two terms. Is user experience maybe just usability plus X? And if so – what is this X?

1 standard, 2 definitions

The terms usability and user experience are both standardized in DIN EN ISO 9241. This standard describes usability as the "extent to which a product can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction in a specified context of use." So, usability describes how user-friendly or suitable a product or service is in a certain context for certain user groups.

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As per the above-mentioned standard, the term "user experience" encompasses a person's expectations, perceptions and responses that result from the use, anticipated use or after the use. Admittedly, this is a very vague definition. Its key aspects are the users' subjective perceptions and the process of the use because users have certain expectations regarding a product, they make experiences when they use a product and process them afterwards. This, in return, has an influence on their expectations. Although the standard addresses the subjective and even the emotional side of the usage experience, usability still plays a major role in this definition of user experience. So, does this mean that user experience is really usability + X, with X being the subjective aspects of usability?

User-friendliness vs. UX

From my point of view, it was Marc Hassenzahl from the Folkwang University of the Arts who achieved a breakthrough in our understanding of user experience. His definition clearly focuses on emotionality, i. e. the positive and negative feelings encountered when using a product or service. But, what is more, Marc Hassenzahl clearly defined what it takes for products to be perceived positively. This is the case if the users' psychological needs are met when they use the product. This definition paved the way for a completely new approach to the design of (interactive) products.

The psychological needs of most people are similar, albeit with individual manifestations. When it comes to using technology, Hassenzahl lists six needs: autonomy, competence, relatedness, popularity, stimulation and security. Stimulation, for example, aims at making new experiences. The need for competence is fulfilled when somebody feels capable and effective. Social networks, for example, are so successful because they fulfill the need for relatedness and popularity.

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Hassenzahl's model is a new approach to designing interactive products. Usability aims at eliminating usage problems, thus avoiding negative feelings, such as frustration and anger, by employing user-centered design. Experience design, however, focuses on creating positive user experiences – by fulfilling psychological needs. This shows that user experience is more than usability plus a little fun when using a product (buzzword: gamification). Therefore, a positive user experience is not only relevant for consumer products, it can also be achieved in a professional context, as is shown by the example of the Design4Xperience project.

UX just for consumer products?

In this project, the team members re-designed a tablet-based catalog system containing up to 400,000 products. The field sales staff visit craftspeople and sell them tools and equipment through this system. Studies on positive experiences in professional contexts conducted by the project team revealed that sales staff rate experiences as positive whenever they can support their customers in their project setup and work together with them to solve problems.

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The project team re-designed the interface for the product catalog in a way that it explicitly supports the joint setup of crafts projects. This enabled craftspeople and sales staff to draw up tool and equipment lists for the customers' projects together. Moreover, the sales staff was able to add missing equipment or tools to the order list while they were at it. That way, sales staff are more than just salespersons, they are problem solvers and are thus able to experience themselves as competent. Moreover, the joint project setup created an opportunity to build a positive personal relationship between the sales staff and the customer.


User experience is so much more than "usability + X". It doesn't emphasize how to build a system so that the users can fulfill their tasks effectively and efficiently. Instead, it focuses on creating positive or even personally meaningful experiences for everyone involved. Experience design aims at systematically bringing about such experiences by defining the fulfillment of psychological needs as a distinctive part of the design process. This approach exceeds the framework of classical usability methods. It requires a drastically new attitude.

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The author

Michael Burmester, professor at the Stuttgart Media University HdM and UX expert, writes for UID.

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