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User experience, user interface, and usability

These three terms are used a lot in web and app design these days. You may have used them yourself in a recent conversation too. The question is, are we using them in the right way?

A quick summary

  • The User Interface is the method by which the system is used
  • Usability is how well the system allows tasks to be performed
  • User Experience is the subjective response an individual has to the system.

User interface

In the area of website or software design, the user interface is generally understood to mean the GUI or graphical user interface.

Desktop computers have been using GUIs since the early 80s with the advent of the WIMP model (windows, icons, menus, pointer), primarily using the trusty old keyboard and mouse. In recent years touch and voice command systems have become much more common with the iPhone having both in the form of a touch screen and Siri.


Often used interchangeably with UX, usability really refers to getting tasks done. The user’s feelings about the steps involved are secondary. Design aesthetics usually take a back seat to task priority in usability. A system can be ugly and off putting, whilst allowing the user to complete tasks easily. Case in point, pretty much any Google product. They look awful and the UX is painful but they serve search results extremely quickly and that’s all most users care about.

User experience

User experience is defined by our friends at the International Organisation for Standardisation as “a person’s perceptions and responses that result from the use or anticipated use of a product, system or service” (from this Wikipedia article). In the realm of web design this generally means, how do users of your site feel about it?

The three main factors that influence how a user will experience your site are:

  • The user’s state of mind and their previous experience
  • The site itself
  • The usage situation

The three of these will add together to equal the user experience. As an example imagine you have a travel website and the following factors are in play:

  • The user is agitated and has had negative experiences with online booking websites before
  • Your site has a bug whereby the address form doesn’t accept New Zealand as a valid country
  • The user has to enter a New Zealand address in order to make a booking.

As you can imagine there will be a very negative user experience in this scenario.

Relating all this back to your project!

Even in the fairly standardised UI world of the website, there are a multitude of ways for your users to interface with your site. Consider responsive design or touch gestures, how will your site deal with them?

If you articulate the most important tasks you would like your users to be able to achieve on your site, then you’ll be able to focus in on creating the best, most intuitive way for these to be undertaken. If you can create a good user interface with good usability, then the user experience will largely take care of itself.

Some other things to consider when you’re planning your website:

  • Firstly ensure that you use a reputable design team. A good team will have a wealth of knowledge regarding best practice in web design and will help you to avoid common pitfalls in the interface design.
  • Articulate clearly what the most important tasks on the website are. Rank them in order of importance. Communicate that as early as possible in the project to the design team
  • Understand that once your website is launched it will need to be revisited regularly to ensure it still enables users to complete those important tasks in a timely fashion
  • Listen to your design team!

Just the beginning…

If you start thinking about UI, UX, and usability you’re already streets ahead of most websites out there! To be honest, most sites these days are just templates bought from online market places with your branding stuck on top. This doesn’t take your users into account at all, other than in a hazily defined best practice fashion.

Start by reading blog posts from some of the experts and get educated on what it means to really put the user first. Jakob Nielsen knows a thing or two, as do local experts Optimal Experience. Start reading their thoughts on user centred design and begin the journey!

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