top of page

Usability & UX, are they the same? If not, what's different?

In an article published in, UX design author Michael Cummings makes a clear distinction between the two. He states that UX design puts the “emphasis on the human side of human-computer interaction, and its effective results, rather than on the mere usability, the human performance aspect of computer interface design, which traditionally relates to the field of ergonomics.”

UX » emphasis on human-computer interaction

USABILITY » related to the field of ergonomics.

UX is one of the main concerns of user-centred web design. These two areas are indeed related. Oxford Dictionary defines it as “the overall experience of a person using a product such as a website or a computer application, especially in terms of how easy or pleasing it is to use: if a website degrades the user experience too much, people will simply stay away.”


Pabini Gabriel-Petit, Principal Consultant at Strategic UX at Silicon Valley, and founder, publisher, and Editor in Chief of UXmatters, In its Nov 2005 issue, she writes:

“When Don Norman came to Apple in 1993 as Vice President of Research and Head of the Advanced Technology Group (ATG), he brought with him the new term user experience design.

Don Norman - Rethinking Design Thinking

UX design takes a holistic, multidisciplinary approach to the design of user interfaces for digital products. Depending on the product, UX can integrate interaction design, industrial design, information architecture, visual interface design, instructional design, and user-centred design, ensuring coherence and consistency across all of these design dimensions. UX design defines a product’s form, behaviour, and content.”

Macintosh, the first-ever mass-market computer featuring Graphical User Interface (GUI), was launched in 1984. It transported computer users from the command line to mouse operated cursor and clickable computer screen items, or icons, as they became popularly known. It is important to note that in the late 80s and even in the early 90s, many prominent tech commentators and Academics continued to be sceptical about GUI, now a critical component of UX. It is easy to see the connection between the tectonic changes that GUI brought to computing and especially to contemporary mobile devices. GUI was originally dreamed up and developed by Xerox Palo Alto Research Institute (PARC).

But it was Steve Jobs who recognised its enormous potential in the rapidly growing market of personal computing.

Louis Anslow's article in explores how experts and analysts have responded to Macintosh and other platforms featuring GUI. It states that the tech media reports seemed less than favourable, expressing doubt whether Icon/Mouse driven interfaces could ever successfully compete with the command line.

In 1990, six years after the Macintosh launch, the NYTimes, in an article titled “The Computers That Mimic a Desk,” featured a mocking illustration of a man in a suit on a very high chair sitting at a rather bizarre-looking giant desk-like screen.

Louis Amslow's "“The Computers That Mimic a Desk,”

In June of the same year, at a time when GUI was well established on many different platforms of the day, Marcia Peoples Halio, a member of the English Department at the University of Delaware, released a critical paper titled “Student Writing: Can the Machine Maim the Message.” In this paper, she suggested that students' quality of work on a Macintosh with a graphical interface was inferior to the work that students completed using the command line.

Halio’s academic colleagues, however, disagreed with her findings. In an article in the journal Computers and Composition, they argued that the “article is so seriously flawed by methodological and interpretive errors that it would probably have been dismissed had it appeared in a journal directed to an audience of professional writing teachers. Publication in Academic Computing has given it wide circulation, however, not only among faculty members involved with writing instruction but also among administrators responsible for purchasing equipment for their campuses. Its potential [negative] impact is therefore considerable.”

Chris Goyens, a prominent tech author, argued at the time that:

“What began as the Macintosh revolution, using a “mouse” to pinpoint and call up editorial options which were represented by icons — pictures of file folders, electric calculators, painter’s palette and trash cans — now has spread.” Goyens dubbed the phenomenon “icon-mania” and called GUIs a “mixed blessing.”

Goyens argued that the system was not much of a gain, and with word processing, it made hardly any difference at all.

Despite the many influential doubters of the day, Steve Jobs’ vision of graphical interface on personal computers prevailed. The touchscreen technology as we know it today, now ubiquitous user interface component, was affirmed by the emergence of the iPhone.


In simplest terms, successful UX design is a product of understanding instinctive human behaviour in various scenarios. Danish behavioural design expert Sille Krukow argues that human behaviour broadly falls into two categories:

  • Automatic - such as reading the emotion on human faces

  • Reflective - such as working out mathematical equations

Studies, as well as personal experience, show that the latter requires far greater effort. Humans are naturally predisposed to saving as much energy as possible, which is why we try to avoid reflective thinking for too long, as it is heavy on our metabolic resources.

An important aspect of determining human behaviour is acknowledging and accepting human flaws, such as limited attention span. Consequently, UX designers must consider the insights of human behaviour to find the best design solutions that can effectively communicate the intended narrative. Therefore, a broad guideline to successful UX design would be about aiming for a reduced complexity interface and content, neither of which should be too taxing from users’ point of view. In the UI context, to facilitate intuitive behaviour or automatic non-reflective behaviour, a UX designer should consider, amongst many other things:


Sille Krukow argues that the task of doing the weekly shopping, for example, may seem simple, but in reality, it is not so. The amount of decisions that a shopper has to make is considerable. By the time the shopper has filled up the trolley and reached the checkout, the task of decision-making has caused their blood sugar levels to drop significantly, which is why supermarkets make sure to place sweets at prime spots around checkouts. Ethical implications aside, from shoppers’ perspective, a choice of sweets at the checkout would ensure a positive finish to a demanding shopping event.

Our instincts and flaws reflect everything we do - how we spend our money, how we interact with products, how we interact with websites, with traffic signs, or an app.

Humans, in general, have good intentions, and deep down, know what the best thing to do is, but our instincts all too often get in the way. We tend to respond much better to positive instructions rather than what we are requested or ordered NOT to do.

UX design is about working with human flaws and instincts, i.e. not assume that the end-user is willing to be too reflective for too long.

This would suggest that when designing for UX, it is wise to consider human instincts. Our pack mentality, for instance, would be one of them. It is one of our strongest and most rudimentary instincts. Our need to conform means that we instinctively mirror the behaviour of those around us, as we tend to do what we see other people do. This instinct is so profound that it can cancel out our own good intentions or what we believe to be the right thing to do, such as an antisocial habit of littering or other forms of human behaviour.

The above images illustrate a good example of how Sille Krukow’s design addresses the beach-littering issue. Instead of giving authoritative orders such as “NO LITTERING” or moralising how littering is irresponsible and selfish, she instead gives positive instructions using primary colour coding and clear graphics with easy to see and maintain recycling points.


1 Comment

Reinhard Buchta
Reinhard Buchta
Feb 06, 2018

A good article, but unfinished (it says "to be continued").

I'll wait for the rest of it before I comment.

bottom of page