The study of the relationship between people and technology has been called a variety of names over the years - from computer ergonomics, human computer interaction and usability to, more recently, human-centred design and user experience.

The term user experience is now widely used, especially by major players in the industry including Apple, IBM and Microsoft. 

However, in many cases, the term is contrasted to usability which is often depicted as a much narrower concept focusing on systems being easy to use. 

Other exponents explain that user experience goes beyond usability by including such issues as usefulness, desirability, credibility and accessibility.

Personally, I do not really care what this area is called but I have had to face up to it in my capacity as Chair of the sub-committee of the International Standards Organisation (ISO) which is responsible for the revision of ISO 13407 - the International Standard for Human Centred Design.

The ISO concept of usability is much closer to this definition of user experience than it is to the concept of ‘easy to use’ so we have decided to use the term user experience in the new version of ISO 13407 (which will be called ISO 9241-210 to bring it into line with other usability standards).

‘Easy to use’ is not enough

Easy is good but it is not enough. Focusing on ‘easy’ tends to marginalise it. 

In today’s competitive times, I can see an IT project manager saying “we would have liked to make the new billing system a bit easier but we really didn’t have time and we did not want to delay it”. 

I can see a hard pressed business manager saying “ok, it would have been nice but we didn’t want to wait”.

However, if you use the ISO 9241-11 definition, the picture changes. Can you honestly imagine the project manager saying (out loud) “We know the system is not going to work but we wanted to be able to tick the ‘delivered on time’ box?"

And can you imagine the customer saying, “Ok, it would have been nice if it had worked but we’d rather pay for a failed system than take a bit longer getting it right?” No, of course you can’t!

Similarly, the ISO concept of usability allows aesthetic issues to be addressed, if they are important to the user. 

As I have written elsewhere, one of Apple’s strengths is that most of its products are highly engaging and attractive. 

If the user’s task was simply to select and play MP3 files then the iPod would not have the market dominance it has. For most people, their task involves personal entertainment and having a product which is a delight to hold and use is part of that experience.

So what does User Experience include?

In the revised standard we define it as ‘all aspects of the user’s experience when interacting with the product, service, environment or facility’ and we point out that ‘it is a consequence of the presentation, functionality, system performance, interactive behaviour, and assistive capabilities of the interactive system. 

It includes all aspects of usability and desirability of a product, system or service from the user’s perspective’.

Of course, Apple is particularly good at the total user experience. I recently visited the Apple Store in Fifth Avenue, New York with my wife Fiona. As we waited for her free appointment at the Genius bar, I could not help compare this with my own experiences of trying to get help from other software vendors. 

I concluded that I’d much rather visit an iconic building staffed by people who seemed really enthusiastic and get free personal help than be kept on hold after pressing numerable buttons to find someone who would only speak to me if I paid £15 since my product was out of warranty (yes, that really happened). 

Now providing an equivalent of the Apple Genius Bar does go a bit beyond our usual idea of usability but it is part of the infrastructure of training and support which should be designed as part of the human-centred design process.

What are the implications for business?

I hope that by making the user experience part of the human centred design process we will avoid marginalising it and make user experience a key business driver for all kinds of systems. 

Thinking ‘user experience’ for consumer oriented products should encourage us to look at such issues as aesthetics, branding, packaging and support. 

Thinking ‘user experience’ for bespoke desk top systems should encourage us to think more about such issues as work organisation, job design, training and support.

Whatever we call it, getting the relationship between people and technology right is critical to a project’s success and the intelligent application of a structured, people centred approach to design can only be a step in the right direction.

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Tom Stewart

Published 2 April, 2008 by Tom Stewart

Tom Stewart is Executive Chairman at System Concepts, and a guest blogger at Econsultancy. System Concepts can be followed on Twitter here, and Tom is also on Google+.

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Comments (6)

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Deri Jones, CEO at SciVisum Ltd

another often forgetten factor - is that user experience changes 24/7 on a site.
Usability defined simply as page design can be good or bad, but doesn't change when the site is busy or quiet.

Whereas the traffic builds up at the daily busy slot(s), the technology load increases, the average journey time slows down as the server(s) are working harder. Some % of users get unacceptably slow responses.

Worse, a percentage of users will start to get wrong or error pages: bugs in the software can start to be triggered as page hits to specific functions get closer and closer in time ('race conditions' is the software jargon).

An example: the user experience can be damaged because say 2% of visitors between 8pm and 10pm get returned a 'nothing matches your query' even though that is not true - so they never buy a product that was available.

Most sites have no idea of how many % of users are exposed to errors this way... too often when measured and shown- there is shock - ' we thought the site was good, as it doesn't crash like it often did this time last year'!

User experience is hugely dependent on how well your infrastructure handles traffic peaks, and this is an area too many web folks are scared to enquire - it does take enough tech understanding which is a scary place to go if you've come up through marketing or commercial or design career paths.

Which makes the help of measurement folks like us, that will tell you just what % of visitors you are inadvertantly losing, of more value.

Lastly, your traffic peaks probably occur outside your office hours - so you come in next morning after a X00,000 email campaign hit your site... how do you know just what visitors experienced the night before? Maybe the CheckOut journey worked fine, but the 'search and add to basket' ground to mind-numbingly slow?

Now that everyone is battling to get the last few % out of everything they do online, and the competition gets harder... 24/7 measurements of experience on user journeys can add serious ROI.


over 10 years ago


Avi Harel

What about the user's productivity? Is it also part of the user experience?
What about safety issues due to user errors? Can they be considered part of the user experience?
I am leading now a team that develops a standard about the usability of medical alarms. The user experience is not a major concern here. The term usability seems to me more appropriate to describe the hazards of missed alarms or false alarms.
I think that instead of arguing what term is part of what other term, we may thing of cause and effect. Usability is the cause for the user experience, productivity and safety, and of course it is not the only factor affecting these concepts. The system performance is also a factor affecting the user experience. The Environmental setup and team coordination are factors affecting the user productivity and the safety.

over 9 years ago


Tom Stewart

yes all these can be considered part of the user experience. The point is to take account of the entire context in which the system or product is used. ISO DIS 9241-210 (the revision of ISO 13407) is now out for public comment and is avaialble from national standards bodies and ISO. The dfefinition of user experience is as follows:

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 users’ 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.
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, in the case of medical alarms, considering the user experience means that you have to take account of the wider issues such as what else the user is doing at the time, how much training they have had, how the new system relates to previous systems they may have used and so on. I agree that usability (as defined in ISO 9241-11 as effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction) is indeed one of the main drivers of the user experience but I still think it is a useful concept to remind us of thes broader issues.

over 9 years ago


Avi Harel

Semantically, the term "user experience" describes subjective perception of a situation, as opposed to the public perception of the situation. If we add "responses that result from the use ... ", as in the proposed definition, then we seem to abuse the semantics of the term.
The term "usability" is not about perception, but about the "objective" effects of certain system properties. Therefore, for cases such as medical alarms, its seems more proper to use the term "usability", which is more relevant to our concerns about the patient safety. The term "user experience" should be restricted to the way medical team members perceive the situation, which is not identical to the public concern about this issue.

over 9 years ago


Tom Stewart

Avi, I agree usability is vital, especially in medical systems but if you use the ISO 9241-11 definition then usability is not objective - satisfaction involves the user making a trade off between what the system delivers in terms of performance and what it costs them in terms of effort and other impacts. I don't think we are really disagreeing!

over 9 years ago



Hi! Would you mind if I share your blog with my twitter
group? There's a lot of folks that I think would really enjoy your content. Please let me know. Thank you

almost 6 years ago

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