More Than Usability: The Four Elements of User Experience, Part I

Eliciting Desired Behavior

Designing for business success

A column by Frank Guo
April 24, 2012

Some people mistakenly use the terms user experience and usability almost interchangeably. However, usability is increasingly being used to refer specifically to the ease with which users can complete their intended tasks, and is closely associated with usability testing. Therefore, many perceive usability to be a rather tactical aspect of product design. In contrast, UX professionals use the term user experience much more broadly, to cover everything ranging from ease of use to user engagement to visual appeal. User experience better captures all of the psychological and behavioral aspects of users’ interactions with products.

To help define the objectives and scope of user experience efforts, as well as enable their meaningful measurement, I would like to propose a conceptual framework that describes four distinct elements of user experience, as shown in Figure 1, and how they interact with one another in driving better product designs.

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Figure 1—The four elements of user experience
Four elements of user experience

In attempting to achieve conceptual simplicity, I’ve reduced the many aspects of user experience to the four elements that I believe are the most fundamental. It’s possible to treat additional aspects of user experience as subcategories of these elements—for example, credibility, accessibility, and findability, from Peter Morville’s user experience honeycomb.

Usability—Is It Easy to Complete Tasks?

While people sometimes use the term usability to refer to all elements relating to user experience, it should more appropriately be viewed as just a subset of user experience.

Usability is about how easily users can complete their intended tasks using a product. There are many types of usability issues that hinder users’ ability to complete the tasks that they intend to perform. Let’s look at some examples.

A person takes out his iPhone because he wants to dial a phone number to call a person who’s not in his contacts, so he has to input the number. He taps Phone at the bottom of the screen. Easy. What’s next? Well, there is no keypad on the screen. Nor is there a field into which he can enter the number. In interaction design terms, there is a lack of any call to action, affordance, or contextual cue. So, he spends some time inspecting the screen, and after about 30 seconds, he discovers the Keypad button at the bottom, shown in Figure 2.?He’s solved the problem, but discovering how to enter a phone number, one of the primary functions of a phone, should not take that along! This is a usability problem.

Figure 2—iPhone user interface
iPhone user interface

Here’s another example. Do you recall your first experience using your company’s intranet to do things like getting new office supplies, submitting an expense report, managing your career development, or taking a look at your paycheck? Were you able to use the intranet effectively without asking the help desk or your colleagues for help? I doubt it. Many intranet sites have really, really bad usability—so bad that you could probably never figure out how to do some tasks on your own.

These just a couple of examples that demonstrate the frustrations of performing tasks using software that has usability issues—as most applications do.

Usability is not about user intention, user engagement, or visual appeal—the other elements in my user experience framework. But usability does encompass all of the UX elements relating to ease of use. Things like learnability; content discoverability, findability, and readability; and the ease with which users can recognize information and affordances all fall into this category.

Usability, in itself, is a vast topic, and an entire generation of human/computer-interaction professionals have devoted their careers to advancing the field and improving digital-product user experiences. However, user experience goes far beyond users’ being able to complete their tasks, learn about new features, and find their way around a Web site. In fact, some other aspects of user experience are probably more important when it comes to driving business success.

Value—Does a Product Provide Value to Users?

While usability is an important aspect of product design, it is certainly not the most critical aspect of user experience when it comes to driving business success. There are many products that have good usability, but do not enjoy success in the marketplace. For example, traditional mobile phones are giving way to smartphones, even though many phones are very easy to use. Why? Because mobile phones do not provide the value to users that smartphones do. Consumers want the ability to surf the Web, use instant messaging, play games, and use GPS services on their mobile devices. Here, we are talking about the value aspect of user experience.

What drives a product’s value to users? Alignment between product features and user needs. If a product’s features are designed in such way that they support user needs, users will consider the product valuable. User needs encompass more than just their explicit needs—things that users know they want. They also include users’ implicit needs—things that users don't express as needs. Apple products like iPhone and iPad are excellent examples of satisfying implicit needs. In meeting users’ unexpressed needs, they are not only easy-to-use products, but also devices that add much value to users’ daily lives.

Perceived value is closely related to the other elements of user experience such as usability and desirability, but the key drivers of value are a product’s functionality and features. Value forms the cornerstone of a good user experience. A product that does not add value by fulfilling user needs does not provide a meaningful user experience—regardless of how well it might be designed.

Adoptability—Will People Start Using the Product?

The Yahoo! Web browser toolbar, shown in Figure 3, might be both easy to use and valuable to a typical Internet user, but if users don’t install it, all of the product’s good features become irrelevant. This is the adoptability element of user experience.

Figure 3—Yahoo! browser toolbar
Yahoo! browser toolbar

Let’s look at some other examples of adoptability issues. When companies launch their iPhone apps, they typically embed links to the apps on their desktop Web sites. However, this is a very problematic design decision: a user is visiting such a Web site on a computer, so how can she click the link to the application and download it to her iPhone? The Vanguard financial-advisor site, shown in Figure 4, exhibits this problem.

Figure 4—

The right way to introduce Vanguard’s iPhone app would be to place a link to it on their mobile site, which shows up by default on the iPhone. However, when I took a look, I found that their mobile site doesn’t provide such a link. So, here’s a failure of adoptability: users simply don’t have a straightforward way of downloading the Vanguard iPhone app. So they need to go to the Apple iTunes store, search for the keyword Vanguard, select the right Vanguard iPhone app, and install it—not the most spontaneous way for users to get on board.

Based on the above examples, it’s clear that adoptability has a lot to do with the design of workflows. In addition, adoptability depends on things like credibility and brand perception. Content that does not look authentic or that is associated with a weak brand will have problems drawing users.

Adoptability is very closely related to usability. To improve adoptability, UX professionals employ robust usability techniques to ensure that they design a product’s workflows to support users’ natural ways of discovering its features. However, these two elements are also fundamentally different. Adoptability relates to users’ buying, downloading, installing, and starting to use a product. In other words, adoptability is about that stage when a user has not yet used a product, while usability becomes most relevant once a user has begun using a product. By making this distinction, I hope to call out an often neglected aspect of UX strategy: providing easy access to a product.

Adoptability is also clearly different from value. Even if a product brings great value to users, they still might not choose to use it because of difficulties relating to access and installation, as I’ve illustrated in my earlier examples. In other words, adoptability relates to obtaining access to a product, while value relates to a product’s features and content. To improve adoptability, a product team must consider the natural context in which a user first gets exposed to their product and how it impacts the design of the installation flow.

At first glance, adoptability seems to relate to product marketing—both are about promoting product usage. However, unlike traditional marketing, which focuses on marketing campaigns, Web promos, marketing email messages, and so on, adoptability is a user experience element that you should consider as an integral component of a product’s design.

Desirability—Is the Experience Fun and Engaging?

So far, we have examined cognitive, or rational, aspects of user experience. But desirability relates to emotional appeal. Oftentimes, products that are both easy to use and useful prove to be failures in the marketplace because of their lack of desirability. Examples include traditional MP3 players versus iPod and consumer electronics products made by all other manufacturers versus Sony products.

In fact, people often enjoy using products that have poor usability. For example, many video games have really poor usability: their instructions are hard to understand, their navigation is very confusing, their settings menus are hard to discover, and the readability of their content is poor. But that hasn’t stopped me and others from playing them, because they are just so engaging.

A large part of desirability is attributable to innovative visual design. Figures 5 and 6 show two examples of how strong visual appeal drives desirability.

Figure 5—Visual appeal drives Bing’s desirability
Visual appeal drives Bing’s desirability
Figure 6—The visual appeal of iPad drives its desirability
The visual appeal of iPad drives its desirability

It is worth noting that we should define desirability within the context of users’ tasks. Thus, desirability is not just about nice-looking graphics and sleek designs. A desirable product must engage users in relation to their intended uses of the product. Therefore, many designs that don’t appear desirable to people who aren’t a product’s target users nevertheless score high on desirability with its target users. For instance, Excel is desirable to me when I need to perform data analysis, an activity that I enjoy a lot. I have a great time using the software because its simplistic user interface lets me perform my tasks well, despite the fact that it doesn’t look pretty, as shown in Figure 7. If Microsoft added pretty graphics to Excel, I might find the experience less desirable if the graphics distracted me from what I intended to do.

Figure 7—Desirability is not tantamount to great visual presentation, as Excel’s UI demonstrates
Desirability is not tantamount to great visual presentation, as Excel’s UI demonstrates

To further understand how desirability is dependent on a user’s context, let’s take a look at the and home pages. From the perspective of visual appeal,, which is shown in Figure 8, is the clear winner because of its more polished look and feel. But from a user experience perspective, hard-core eBay users—auction shoppers—would find's visual presentation, shown in Figure 9, much more desirable. The reason: eBay shoppers are typically in search of bargains, and pictures of used items for sale meet that need. The design of’s home page is suggestive of its high-end inventory—something eBay shoppers wouldn’t want. To sustain its desirability, should not apply an overly polished visual treatment to the site for its core business: online auctions.

Figure 8—
Figure 9—

Examples That Illustrate the Differences Between the Elements of UX

Now that I have introduced the four elements of user experience, you may have noticed that, in some ways, they look rather similar to one another. Let’s look at a few examples of problems that can help us to distinguish these elements from one another:

  • a problem relating to adoptability—A user hears from her friends that an iPhone app is very useful and would like to try it, but she doesn't know how to install it on her iPhone.
  • a problem relating to usability—A user is actively using a product, but has problems completing her intended tasks.
  • a problem relating to desirability—A user finds her experience with a product rather enjoyable despite the fact that she has difficulties performing her tasks with it. Thus, the product has good desirability, but needs usability improvements.
  • a problem relating to user value—A user can perform all of his tasks with ease, but doesn’t find a product’s features valuable in relationship to his needs.


In breaking down user experience into its four constituent elements—Value, Usability, Adoptability, and Desirability, I’ve established a conceptual framework that can help UX professionals to identify and work on the key elements of product design. There are certainly many other equally valid ways of conceptualizing user experience. The four elements I’ve identified to form this framework are not completely orthogonal to one another; they do overlap somewhat. For example, desirability plays an important role in driving adoptability, just as visual appeal motivates prospective users to try out a product. Usability plays an important role in enabling desirability, because users who encounter problems when attempting to perform their tasks using a product would almost certainly find that product to be less desirable as a result.

It is important that UX professionals have a clear understanding of the constituent parts of user experience. By focusing on these four very important and distinctive elements of users’ interactions with digital products, we can develop design solutions that address all facets of user experience in a holistic manner. Not only is this important in helping us to deliver delightful user experiences, it is also important in driving business success through UX strategy.

A key advantage of this conceptual model over other models of user experience is that it offers a way to prioritize UX efforts based on their business impact. For example, in the past, UX professionals placed great emphasis on usability while overlooking adoptability, an element this is often more important than usability when it comes to driving business results. In general, usability has less business impact relative to the other three elements of user experience, which focus on the access and motivation aspects of product usage, while usability is more about repeated usage.

Unlike my model, other models of user experience make little differentiation between UX elements in relation to business impact. For example, in the honeycomb model Peter Morville has proposed, the UX elements—including findability, credibility, value, usability, and accessibility—all appear to have equal importance. While they might actually have equal importance in terms of user experience, they affect business results differently. This is the key message that my model delivers. Leveraging this model to prioritize our UX efforts is a large topic in itself. I’ll discuss the business implications of this framework in future columns. 

Read more:


Morville, Peter. “User Experience Design.” Semantic Studios, June 21, 2004.

Founder of UX Strategized

San Bruno, California, USA

Frank GuoA well-respected UX strategist and architect, Frank has co-authored a book chapter and published more than a dozen professional papers, covering such topics as advertising, Web promotion, eyetracking, persona development, product strategy, and search results. He has also developed a large body of user-research techniques and UI-design guidelines and trained many in applying them. Recently, at the Human-Computer Interaction International conference, Frank received a best-paper award for a paper that he co-authored. Frank is currently providing UX strategy and design consulting services through his firm, UX Strategized.He set up and led user research practice for Barclays’s iShares business and established foundational digital client insights for the firm. His work had a deep impact on iShares’s digital strategies and shaped the award-winning UI designs of iShares’s Web tools and iPhone app. Previously, Frank established eyetracking as a key research method at eBay. He led advertising research there and published a professional paper on best practices for online advertising. He also led design guidelines research that influenced eBay’s UI design best practices and full-cycle user research for the shipping and seller tools, influencing the tools’ overall redesigns. Prior to joining eBay, Frank conducted design-strategy research at Oracle, influencing the UI architecture of its enterprise software suite. Frank obtained a PhD in cognitive psychology from UCLA, where he conducted extensive scientific research on consumer psychology and taught advanced statistics.  Read More

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