The Difference (and Relationship) Between Usability and User Experience

After web site accessibility, “user experience” (abbreviated as UX) is probably the phrase that most people tend to confuse usability with. While the topic of the difference between usability and user experience has been discussed by various experts in the respective fields, I feel the need to write about it for two main reasons.

The first reason is that several posts I have encountered emphasize the distinction between these two terms, yet they fail to highlight the relationship that exists between usability and user experience. The second reason is that whilst most of the posts are similar in nature, I have found some minor, albeit very valid points scattered in various posts I have read. Therefore, the objective of this post is to discuss these two terms, whilst highlighting their differences and more importantly the relationship that exists between them in a clear, concise way.

The difference between usability and user experience

  • ISO Definition: Usability is concerned with the “effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction with which specified users achieve specified goals in particular environments” (ISO 9241-11) [1] whilst user experience is concerned with “all aspects of the user’s experience when interacting with the product, service, environment or facility” (ISO 9241-210) [2].
  • Aim: In terms of a web site, the aim of usability is to make that web site easy to use whilst the aim of user experience is to make the user happy before, during and after using that web site. Thus, usability relates to the ease with which users can achieve their goals while interacting with a web site while user experience is concerned with the way users perceive their interaction with that web site [3]
  • Defined as a Question: Usability can be modeled as the question “Can the user accomplish their goal?” whilst user experience can be phrased as “Did the user have as delightful an experience as possible?” [4].
  • Defined as a Metaphor: So as to illustrate the contrast between usability and user interface, experts have compared them to science (usability) vs. art (user experience) [5] and a freeway (usability) vs. a twisting mountain road (user experience) [6]. In essence, this metaphorical representation of these two terms focuses on defining something that is usable as functional, simple and requires less mental effort to use. Thus, a freeway is usable since it has no oncoming traffic, enables you to get from point A to point B in a fast manner and has consistent signage, hence requiring little learnability. In terms of usability, a freeway is highly usable but it is boring when assessed in terms of user experience. In contrast, something that focuses on user experience is depicted as highly emotional. Thus, a twisting mountain road is less usable but, because of its scenery, the smell of nature and the excitement of the climb, it conveys a pleasant user experience.
  • Resources Required: Usability involves those employees who influence the user interface design of a web site whilst user experience requires the collective and seamless effort of employees from various departments including engineering, marketing, graphical and industrial design and interface design [7].
  • Impact: Although user experience requires more effort to do well, its results have a better impact [4]. When done properly, user experience effectively enhances the relationship between the user and the brand. This is because “true user experience goes far beyond giving customers what they say they want, or providing checklist features” [7]
  • Effect on User Interface: A usable user interface is one which is typically intuitive, simple or extremely learnable. A user interface whose aim is to create a positive user experience is one which is pleasing to the user. This does not mean that when the focus is on user experience, the user interface is not usable. To the contrary, user experience professionals typically hand over their designs to usability professionals so that they can validate them [5].

The relationship between usability and user experience

Usability is a narrower concept than user experience since it only focuses on goal achievement when using a web site. By contrast, user experience is a “consequence of the presentation, functionality, system performance, interactive behaviour, and assistive capabilities of the interactive system” [2]. This essentially means that user experience includes aspects such as human factors, design, ergonomics, HCI, accessibility, marketing as well as usability. An alternative way to look at this relationship is by subdividing user experience into utility, usability, desirability and brand experience. This is best illustrated by representing these sub divisions as concentric circles where the innermost circle is the most basic aspect of user experience as shown in the diagram below:


Referenced Work

  • Jono Hey

    Really helpful to bring the different explanations of the two together in one place. Thanks.

    It seems to me that we could still work on more apt metaphors to clarify the two. Seems like usability has some art to it, and user experience some science, so the first doesn’t seem too clean. And a freeway can be the best experience when you want to get somewhere, while the twisty mountain road implies a longer journey at the expense of efficiency. Seems to me that user experience again, melds a little of both of them.

    That said, I wish I had some alternative suggestions but it is at least nice to think about it.

    • Justin Mifsud

      Once you understand the difference between these two terms, then you can come up with countless metaphors. Usability is focused on functionality – to get the job done (hence achieve the goal). User Experience is also concerned with satisfaction. So, for example, if the goal is to travel on a road, then a small family car and an exotic sports car are both usable since they both travel. However, the latter definitely elicits a better user experience!

  • Brett Lutchman

    Thanks for the writeup Justin.
    This is a great and clear explanation of of the difference of the two terms.

    The simple illustration I use when explaining to clients is:
    Usability is how effective the tab at the top of a soda gives me access to the carbonated beverage inside.
    How effective this process is may or may not effect my opinion (or UX) of the product.

    Holistically speaking, the User Experience is the after taste that’s left in my mouth.

    Finally, does this ux warrants enough desire for me to become a loyal customer to this brand, and more importantly, do I want to associate myself with this brand.

    • Justin Mifsud

      Great metaphors Brett. Totally agree with you. Thanks for contributing!

  • Rohan Sandeep

    One point i find missing in most debates is how are UX professionals different from Usability professioanls. Do they use difference methodologies that makes them different or is it just the output that brings about the difference.

    The example of the winding road and the freeway is interesting. thanks for such an interesting comparison between the two.

    • Justin Mifsud

      Thanks for your suggestion Rohan. Indeed I have encountered a number of interesting debates especially in LinkedIN groups about what skills UX and Usability professionals need. It is something I should cover in a future post. Will take note of that.

    • Ian Hamilton


      Usability = a goal to work towards
      UX = an umbrella term to cover all points at which a user interacts with a product

      I’d contest that neither of those are professions. There are many different professions that contribute to both usability and UX.

      • Ian Hamilton

        Bit more detail –

        If you are a user researcher then you need skills in planning, recruiting, scripting, facilitating, data analysis, persona creation.

        IA it’s things like domain modelling and card sorting, coming up with url structures, cross-linking, entity relationships and data schemas.

        Interaction design it’s persona use, flows, wireframing, specifications, functional prototyping.

        Visual design – moodboards, scamps, polished PSDs.

        All of these professions contribute towards both usability and UX.

  • jordisan

    If we choose a usability definition which includes ‘satisfaction’ between its goals, for me that is, in fact, equivalent to (good) ‘user experience’.

    I don’t think there’s a real benefit of distinguishing between them.

  • Ru Butler

    Very useful post, one that I will passing on to colleagues and clients alike to define the two practices. Thank you.
    Ru Butler – Head of Experience – Appius

  • prathima

    I am just starting out understanding UX, UI, and usability. I am very passionate about it already, and this explanation about differences helps a lot! Thanks for posting!

  • Ian Hamilton

    I have to disagree with this post.

    Firstly the interpretation of that definition of usability. Your interpretation and the interpretation in the diagram both miss out the ‘satisfaction’ part of the definition.

    It’s just just a straight thing of ‘are people able to use it’. All the little tweaks that interaction designers to make an experience pleasurable rather than utilitarian are not included, but they’re a crucial part of usability. Even look and feel are part of usability.

    I’d contest that your definitions are actually wrong. What you’re referring to as UX is actually closer to usability, and what you’re referring to as usability is only part of the picture, and if followed would not actually result in usable experiences.

    Personally I hate the term UX, it’s widely misunderstood jargon and is constantly misused. It is very rare that it is used to describe the whole process, it is more often muddled up with a specific piece of the puzzle, being used interchangably with terms such as interaction and IA.

    Realistically UX is neither the domain of designers, or a job description. Instead you can have a UX team, which covers not just the various disciplines of design (user research, information architecture, interaction design, visual design) but also business analysts, copywriters, front end developers etc.. anyone responsible for any way for something that contributes to the way in which the end user interacts with the product.

    Take copywriting for example. Can you provide any definition for user experience that does not encompass this?

    Adoption of the term UX to describe part of the design process is a big mistake. However people are more than happy to use, as after all it lets them bump up their salaries.. just give yourself an obscure job title, slap ‘architect’ or ‘consultant’ on the end and you’ve got an easy ticket to a couple of extra hundred to add to your day rate.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m one of those people, but I’m not happy with the situation, I’m forced into using the term UX because that’s what people expect to see, even if they don’t really understand what it means.

    Lastly, another issue with that Amsterdam diagram, the definition assigned to visual design doesn’t cut it, it shows quite a demeaning lack of understanding of what visual design is and what value it holds.

    Visual design is not about being ‘pleasing’. It’s partially about using visual cues to optimise interaction design, but is first and foremost about engendering an emotional response. That response doesn’t have to be ‘pleased’, there’s a lot more to it than that. Just look at some brand values, I doubt you’ll find many that list ‘pleasing’ as one of the things they want to be seen as.

    • Kalle

      Ian Hamilton: I agree with you, apart from your rejection of using the term UX.

      However, the article above is using strange definitions of usability and UX. Usability DOES include satisfaction, look and feel as well. It is just that in UX, emotions and feelings towards the overall experience tends to be more in focus than for usability.

      There is a much greater overlap between the two concepts than the article describes.

    • Justin Mifsud


      I seriously doubt that you have read or understood this post.

      Firstly let us start with definition – I quoted ISO’s definition of usability which, apart from being issued by ISO, has been cited by numerous Usability and UX professionals.

      Let us just assume everyone is wrong. Still, it says: “effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction with which specified users achieve specified goals in particular environments” (ISO 9241-11). Notice the word satisfaction. So, I ask myself, why did you write “Your interpretation and the interpretation in the diagram both miss out the ‘satisfaction’ part of the definition”? As for the diagram, it is there NOT to show what usability is but to show the relationship between usability and user experience, which, mind you, is the subject of this post.

      You say that UX is not the domain of designers BUT, I wrote that “user experience requires the collective and seamless effort of employees from various departments including engineering, marketing, graphical and industrial design and interface design”. I never said that UX is solely the domain of designers. So, what is your point here?


      Strange definitions? Really? If you never encountered the ISO definition of usability, well, that is what I consider as being strange.

      Moreover, if being entirely part of something (usability part of ux) is not enough of an overlap, then I really can’t imagine what “much greater” overlap can there be!

      • Ian Hamilton

        Strong words there Justin, which I won’t take the bait on.

        As for the definition / your interpretation though, you’re quite correct, that definition is widely accepted by many people, myself included. However in your aim, question and metaphor you state that usability is just about goals, ignoring the satisfaction part. For example –

        ” Usability can be modeled as the question “Can the user accomplish their goal?” whilst user experience can be phrased as “Did theuser have as delightful an experience as possible?””

        That’s not correct. According to the definition, usability covers both of these things. Your distinction is wrong. Usability is what you’ve described as UX, ie. Something real and testable that includes perception of experience. In reality all that UX is is a confusing umbrella term for many different job titles.

        That is my point.

  • Hienadz Drahun

    I see a potentional issue that you are using one of the draft versions of User Experience ISO definition.

    Here is the full definition from ISO 9241-210

    “User Experience:
    A person’s perceptions and responses that result from the use or anticipated use of a product, system or service

    Note 1: user experience includes all the user’s emotions, beliefs, preferences, perceptions, physical and psychological responses, behaviours and accomplishments.

    Note 2: user experience is a consequence of the presentation, functionality, system performance, interactive behaviour, and assistive capabilities of the interactive system. It is also a consequence of the user’s prior experiences, attitudes, skills and
    personality. People can have

    Note 3: 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.”

    So I see the difference between usability and user experience that usability is oriented on the process of usage while user experience also includes pre- and post-usage.

  • Hienadz Drahun

    By the way, you also use slightly different version of usability definition.

    Here is the definition section from working draft of ISO 9241-11:

    “For the purposes of this part of ISO 9241, the following definitions apply:

    3.1. usability: 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.

    3.2. quality of a work system in use: The extent to which specified goals can be achieved with effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction in a specified work system.

    Note: The difference between usability and the quality of a work system in use is a matter of focus. When usability is evaluated, the focus is on improving a product while the other components of the work system (user, task, equipment, and environment) are treated as given. When the quality of a work system in use is evaluated any component may be subject to modification or improvement.

    3.3. effectiveness: The accuracy and completeness with which users achieve specified goals.

    3.4. efficiency: The resources expended in relation to the accuracy and completeness with which users achieve goals.

    3.5. satisfaction: The comfort and acceptability of use.

    3.6. context of use: The users, goals, tasks, equipment (hardware, software and materials), and the physical and social environments in which a product is used.

    3.7. work system: A system, consisting of users, equipment, tasks and a physical and social environment, for the purpose of achieving particular goals.

    Note: The context of use consists of the goals of the work system and those components of the work system which are treated as given when specifying or measuring usability.

    3.8. user: The person who interacts with the product.

    3.9. goal: An intended objective.

    3.10. task: The activities undertaken to achieve a goal.

    3.10. product: The part of the equipment (hardware, software and materials) for which usability is to be specified or evaluated.”

  • Stefano Bussolon

    As a cognitive psychologist, I’m very biased in how I would describe usability and ux.
    I would frame the description with the assumption that people would use a product, service, environment or facility because they are motivated in doing so.
    When I design something, I ask myself (and I try to understand it involving the potential users) what motivates them to use it.
    From a sociocognitive point of view, a person can be intrinsically or extrinsically motivated. One is extrisically motivated to engage an experience if it is instrumental for an external goal. In the metaphor, somebody drives the freeway to go somewhere. One is intrinsically motivated if she likes to engage in the experience: I don’t like very much to drive, but somebody do: they are intrinsically motivated to drive.
    Tough the definition of usability explicitly cites the satisfaction (an intrinsic driver), usability experts, in the past, where much more focused on the ease of use, implicitly assuming that the motivation of the users where mainly extrinsic. The merit of the ux shift has been to recognize that people can be intrinsically motivated in using a product, service, environment or facility. The ux vulgata, however, often cites only aspects like excitement or happiness. Yes, sometimes your users can be excited to use what you designed, but usually they engage an experience because they have a reason. If the reason is instrumental, the motivation is extrinsic, and therefore utility and usability are the main factors. The experiential aspect becomes prominent when the reason is not instrumental, but driven by an interest. From a sociocognitive point of view, ux design is about motivating people, where the motivation can be extrinsic (instrumental), intrinsic, or both.

  • Jamie Stanton

    I am starting to think that User Experience is Usability for people who have the luxury of time and resources.

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  • ranjeeth reddy

    Hey Justin your blog is really useful. I need a small help I am starting a new business website. I am in dilemma how and where to start with the content development. could you please help me out

  • Adam Gorbahn

    This is very good points for the blind or visually Impaired Users. I use to have a roommate in collage have visually Impaired. this person very odd with thing that he can’t see. I teaching him how to play DND. he can see clear dice. To me it should be other way round. Human have odd behaviors.we never can get true 100% best experience. But, we can do own best to give a pointer to where they need to go to?

  • Anna Marie

    The joy when I used your article for my dissertation and while referencing I realize you are maltese aswell! :) thanks

    • Justin Mifsud

      Hey Anna Marie, thank you. Yes I guess it is a sense of patriotism since it happens to me too :) With which University are you studying and is it for a degree or masters?

      • Anna Marie

        I am following a course as degree level in MCAST

      • Anna Marie

        no degree in software development

      • Anna Marie

        ps im attending mcast