As the phrase “user experience” was coming into vogue, people adopting the term took pains to distinguish it from “usability”: usability makes it easy to use something, while user experience makes you enjoy using it. To me, this always seemed like a fairly straightforward proposition.

Today I ran across a blog entry entitled “The Battle Between Usability and User-Experience”. The author starts off with this rather provocative sentence:

The main reasons why it is so hard to create usable products is that there is a conflict between a high-usability level and great user-experience.

He then goes on to describe how he sees the distinction, using the example of a road trip: a straight freeway is usable but boring; a twisty mountain highway is not usable, but provides you with a much more interesting experience.

While I appreciate a number of the points in his article, I actually think it’s wrong to position usability against user experience, as if there were necessarily a trade-off between the two. The point he’s missing, I think, is that there’s a difference between challenge and frustration. To follow his analogy, some drivers may prefer straight roads and some may prefer twisty roads, but no one likes to drive over a road full of potholes. Many people enjoy challenge, but nobody enjoys frustration.

Back in the software realm, take video games as an example. Some people prefer casual, relaxing games; some people prefer deep strategy games; some people prefer tense shoot-’em-ups; and some people, like me, play too much of all of them. But nobody enjoys a game with unresponsive controls or bad level design (except in the way that one can enjoy watching, say, Mystery Science Theater 3000).

When we say something is unusable, I don’t think we generally mean that it’s challenging; I think we mean that it’s frustrating. It’s challenging to use a graphic design tool to draw a nice picture (especially if you can’t draw your way out of a paper bag, like me), but you can have a good experience trying. It’s frustrating to fight the interface, and that’s never a good experience.

So, while it’s true that you can have a usable product with a boring experience, it doesn’t follow that it’s difficult to build a good experience around a usable product. In fact, the exact opposite is true: you can’t build a good experience around an unusable product. Pitting usability against experience just obscures this basic fact.

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