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Three hexagons with the words usable, useful and desirable.

Usability vs Desirability in Mobile UX

| 10 min read

The question of what usability is compared to desirability comes up a lot in UX design, and it’s important to be able to distinguish the two. Why? Because usability is the base level of the user experience and without usability it is difficult to create a worthwhile user experience. However, without desirability it’s unlikely that the user experience will be memorable or recommendable to others.

There are four simple levels of UX as defined by the Nielsen Norman Group Conference in Amsterdam in 2008. They are:

The two levels which the UX designer has most control over are usability and desirability. But first let’s look at each level in turn before examining why the difference between usability and desirability matters.

1. Utility

The very first step of the user experience is utility. The questions that must be answered for a product to have utility are:

  • Is the product useful to the user? Does it have a purpose that the user accepts? (In short, the product must not be a solution in search of a problem but rather one that solves an established problem the user is looking to solve.)

  • Does the product meet the needs of the user? (A product can solve a problem but still not be of any value unless it meets the user’s requirements in other areas—such as cost or size.)

Without utility, it’s clear that there is no user experience. A potential user who does not see a product as having any value to them or does not perceive that product to meet their needs is not going to become a user in the first place.


© Jon Duhig, CC BY 2.0

2. Usability

Usability is the next step up the user experience ladder. It answers the question (positively):

  • Is the product easy and intuitive to use? (Many a great idea has failed when translated into a product by falling at this hurdle—a user only has so much time; if they can’t quickly get to grips with using a product, they will abandon it and move on.)

  • Does the user like the way that this product looks and feels?

  • Does the user want this product more than similar products?

Usability was often mistaken for the user experience until recently. The assumption, that a product which solved a problem (e.g., it had utility) and was easy to use (e.g., it had usability) was enough for users, was a sensible idea—but it turns out that this is not enough. The user expects more from a user experience, and products that go beyond the usability phase are those that compete best in their marketplace. Before Apple brought mobile devices to the world, they started in an existing saturated market: MP3 players. Apple’s iPod, for example, was not the first MP3 player. It may have had slight usability advantages over existing products, but these advantages were not sufficient to propel the iPod to a world-changing market-leading product; it was moving up the value chain of user experience that enabled that.

3. Desirability

This brings us to desirability. Note some use this term (including NNgroup) to mean aesthetics. Microsoft even has a tool for measuring aesthetic desirability. 

For now, we are referring to desirability as: Did it solve the right problem? Larry Marine, a UX consultant and top student of Don Norman, said that in his 25 years of consulting rarely did he find teams solving the right problem for their users. Desirability is this problem. 

In any category of product, there are many competitors. Assuming that the market for the product is established, it’s likely that almost all products within the marketplace pass both the utility and usability tests. It is the desirability of the product which separates market leaders from the pack. Think of Apple Watch vs Google’s original watch. Google took a strictly task-oriented approach but forgot emotional differentiation and desirability. Apple’s Jonathan Ive turned the Apple Watch into a biofeedback device that had emotional appeal: e.g., you could draw a heart and send a vibration to a friend.   

Picture of smartwatches.

© Wareable.com, Fair Use

© Wareable.com, Fair Use

It is also desirability that commands a premium in marketplaces. Think about cars, for example; a Skoda and a BMW may both have utility and be usable, but there’s a significant difference in their desirability by users.

Desirability enables the user experience designer to add “cachet” to a product which would otherwise be lost in amongst other similar products in terms of utility and usability.

Desirability gives users what they really want and need. Don Norman famously once said, “usability is the easy part, it’s desirability that really matters”. 

4. Brand Experience

Brand experience is, to a large extent, outside of the user experience designer’s control. However, brand experience is intimately connected to the desirability of products, and it might even be argued that it is not separate from desirability. Brand experience answers the question:

  • Does the user feel good about the product and the company/brand that makes it?

This may explain why Microsoft has had such a hard time breaking into the hardware market, an area in which Apple, for example, excels. Windows may be the dominant operating system on desktop, but it would be hard to argue that Windows users feel good about that. Whereas Apple users do, and are highly vocal about the operating systems of their devices.

Apple’s brand increases the desirability of their physical products—the company has a great reputation for flawless design (there are, of course, plenty of arguments to suggest that this reputation is not always deserved but the reputation remains nonetheless).

Desirability on Mobile 

John Wiley, lead designer for Google, told FastCompany:

“It’s [mobile] not only a new form factor in terms of how things are displayed, but it also adds a new level of engagement. It’s something you can touch, and you can move things around and they respond in kind. That creates a whole new level of this need for desirability… It has to have both momentum and physics that we particularly associate with physical objects. This puts us down an entirely new path in terms of the kind of design thinking we have in terms of what does it look like, how does it feel, does it work right. We start talking about very visual design, like the shadows and the gradients and the light sources and how all of these things create an aesthetic for the product.”

There has been a lot of talk about desirability and emotional design (e.g., a focus on making users “feel something”), but as Zurb.com notes, it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to predict how a user will feel.

It may be better to focus on desirability in terms of helping a user take action through design. That means focusing on visuals, content and form elements when designing a mobile app and in particular remembering:

  • The graphic or visual design is used to deliver context to the user.

  • Well-written and well-executed content can help guide a user through their decision-making process.

  • Actions are finalized by the use of the right form elements (such as buttons or sign-up boxes).

Focusing on action enables the user to make easier decisions and have higher levels of engagement with the product.

Zurb.com also notes that you can’t create desirability if you don’t deliver value and usability first.

Usability and Desirability

As UX designers, we have major influence over these two areas of the user experience. The key difference between the two is that usability is a minimum requirement—there is no user experience without usability. Desirability changes a product from usable into something that a user needs and desires and thus adopts. 

It is important in today’s always-connected world to consider mobile when measuring usability and desirability. While many of the ways we examine mobile products are the same as the way we examine desktop products, mobile products should be examined for usability and desirability in context of their use (e.g., where and when and how will a mobile product be used?). This is more important on mobile because desktop products tend to be used in fixed places whereas mobile can be used anywhere.

The Take Away

Usability is the bare minimum requirement of delivering a decent user experience. Desirability is what separates a great product from an average one; it focuses not just on ease of use but also the idea that a user wants to use a product in preference to another. Utility is an essential but one to be considered before design commences. Brand experience is something likely to be outside of the user experience team’s control and to lie more within marketing’s purview.

References and Where to Learn More

Check out this good examination of desirability within the UX context.

Discover the key differences between usability and UX.

Look at this presentation which investigates how you bridge the gap between usability and desirability.

Read Business Insider’s report that “proves” exactly the opposite in Apple’s favor. 

Find out more from Zurb.com about action by design in terms of desirability.


Hero image: © Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

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