Usability and experience is not the same; 3 things Google can learn from Apple

Posted by on Jun 16, 2010 in BlogPost | 21 Comments

Why P&G’s slogan ‘Experience Matters’ are relevant for tech companies, how tools can be funny and why no one ever really needs a screwdriver.

Lately I have spent a lot of time thinking about how the 90s were a lot about technical innovation, how the 00s were about social innovation and how the 10s will be focused on innovation in the field of ‘Experience’. I think some of the most amazing companies of the coming few years will be businesses that understand how to wrap technology beautifully around human needs so that it matters to people. In fact these insights are not new and was already well documented in Pine and Gilmore’s ‘The Experience Economy‘ from 1999. Its a bit surprising how few technology products and services actually take this into account. If we believe that the emotions of an online user are similar to how the feel offline, then great technology will, by itself, just not be enough; not even if it’s designed in a clean and functional way – you will need to architect a great emotional experience for your users and then make it fit their daily flow to be a winner of tomorrow.

Here are a few things that I think that Google (and all technology-focused companies) could learn from Apple. That’s not to point a finger at Google; it is clearly an amazing company with great minds that is doing very well. However, at a time when Google is moving into new services in which users have more options and are used to more experienced design, it might want to try to pick up a trick or two about human product experience design from the best in class on this subject: Apple.

1. There is a difference between good usability and a great experience

A traffic light has good usability – but using one isn’t really much of an experience. It’s a utility that allows us to navigate quickly and safely when driving.  Many tech companies thrive on making websites that allow users to figure out easily what to do on a site. It’s a tendency to have a big focus on clean and functional navigation, and, done really well (as on google.com), it also becomes a great experience. However, most often, experience is far broader than just clean usability.  It includes navigation, a visual look, the language used, the movement, the system’s attitude toward users, the flow and so on. It all adds up to the feeling users have when they enter a site or service. What is important is that there is no such thing as a ‘non-branded’ services. A user cannot have a ‘non-experience’. This digital packaging is important, in the same way that a car with an innovative engine needs a great body to match it. What Apple has managed to do is to add a great and, importantly, consistent experience around even their most nerdy innovations and services. Apple has managed to add a strong design attitude and a personality to its product development.

2. A tool doesn’t have to be boring

Now, some argue that certain services just need to be tools: pure utilities with none of the fluff. While I agree that some cases call for minimal experience design, I can’t really think of any reason why you wouldn’t always try to put a bit of an experience into your product. Even something that needs to be very professional can still have a bit of attitude. Take the example from earlier, about a traffic light: lately, I have seen traffic lights in Denmark appear with nicer iconography, nicer use of the nuances of lights, informative countdowns to when the light will change, and so on. It’s still a great utility, but now also a better experience. The same goes for my funny new South Part voices made for my TOMTOM GPS navigation systems.

Reeves and Nass’ classic book, The Media Equation, demonstrates very nicely that every time a person interacts with anything, emotions are evoked for them. The book claims that people interact with computers as if the computer were a person. In that perspective, when working on a new service, Googlers should perhaps ask themselves, what if our service was a person? What would that person be like? Would it be the nice, all-knowing, friendly guy next to you, helping with an IT problem, or the factual IT manager who solves your problem remotely with no interaction? The solution/utility is the same; the experience is different.

3. No-one needs a screwdriver

Most smart tech entrepreneurs I meet are in the process of making either scalable platforms or generic tools. The thinking is that if you can make a great solution for one problem, you can often make that into a scalable solution for many problems. This makes perfect sense from a business and from an engineering point of view.  The problem here is that people don’t feel they need tools; they need solutions to problems in their life. People never lack a screwdriver; they need to hang a painting on the wall. However, if you focus in on an amazing tool you just created, then you will naturally construct a narrative around the tool’s features. Not only that, you might even stare yourself blind at all the things that the tool could be used for. Need to open a can of beer? No problem, the screwdriver can do that…

What Apple has managed to do is to package their products around the user’s needs, not around all the features of the tool itself. Sometimes they even package the same tool into various products/solutions for their users.

In that respect, it is very interesting to see how differently Apple and Google have presented their phone operating systems. Here are the two links;

video one

video two

I’ll leave it to you to guess who I think focuses on the utility and who focuses on experience. (one of them might even be a bit over the top :)

  • http://andrewchenblog.com Andrew Chen

    just a quick thought re: usability vs. experience-
    Obviously there’s been a huge transition in the world of engineering to go from waterfall to agile, and all the accompanying ideas- sprints, pair programming, test-driven development, etc.

    The whole idea of usability is very well suited to the waterfall style product development process, where you have a huge process that can culminate in people usability testing right at the end.

    Clearly that will all go the way of dinosaurs soon enough ;-)

    Instead, you’re already seeing design realign with the agile development process, so that design can be done in small sprint-like chunks, with designers and engineers working together at the same time. IDEO and all the HCD cross-functional folks I think are leading this approach. This process not only makes it so that design is a more critical ingredient of the product development process, but it also infuses it across the whole cycle so it’s not just something you do at the end to make things look great or user test it post-facto it or whatever. Instead you’re thinking about the beginning, and then throughout the process.

    As I understand, Google’s internal process still relies primarily on backloaded usability testing for design, and the engineers take the lead. Pretty obvious that designers are able to run the overall process at Apple, and inject themselves throughout, rather than being an add-on at the end…

  • http://andrewchen.typepad.com Andrew Chen

    just a quick thought re: usability vs. experience-Obviously there's been a huge transition in the world of engineering to go from waterfall to agile, and all the accompanying ideas- sprints, pair programming, test-driven development, etc.The whole idea of usability is very well suited to the waterfall style product development process, where you have a huge process that can culminate in people usability testing right at the end.Clearly that will all go the way of dinosaurs soon enough ;-)Instead, you're already seeing design realign with the agile development process, so that design can be done in small sprint-like chunks, with designers and engineers working together at the same time. IDEO and all the HCD cross-functional folks I think are leading this approach. This process not only makes it so that design is a more critical ingredient of the product development process, but it also infuses it across the whole cycle so it's not just something you do at the end to make things look great or user test it post-facto it or whatever. Instead you're thinking about the beginning, and then throughout the process.As I understand, Google's internal process still relies primarily on backloaded usability testing for design, and the engineers take the lead. Pretty obvious that designers are able to run the overall process at Apple, and inject themselves throughout, rather than being an add-on at the end…

  • http://twitter.com/knowledgenotebk Knowledge NoteBook

    It seems Usability is a good toddler and Experience is a sensible grown-up.

  • http://twitter.com/shawnkolodny Shawn Kolodny

    Wow watching the android video clearly written and produced by engineers, 30 seconds then had to stop. After seeing the apple video I now have to buy a new IPhone! My old one isnt even 6 months old!!!!! Man apple is good

  • Sune Engsig

    I can't wait to see what Apple will mean/do for video telephony :-) Watching the video, you have to admire their guts when introducing “FaceTime” as their latest idea. As you all know, video telephony was the killer app for 3G – and it tanked in a very big way. If Apple succeeds in “breaking” this (Like they made tethering easy to use) it will be no less than impressive. Mind you, their cool vid didn't show anything new about video calls… I'm not holding my breath.

  • werdelin

    Makes sense. Also really liked you points in your post a bit back. Seems to be along the same lines:http://andrewchenblog.com/2009/12/04/does-every

  • Pingback: Three Things Google Can Learn From Apple | JK Technologies |

  • Pingback: Business Tips from Small-Town USA | Streamlined Life

  • http://www.marioparise.ca Mario Parise

    The more important lesson, to me, is focus. Apple is focused on creating the most seamless technical experience possible. I would argue that no one has a chance of beating them at this.The trouble with most tech companies isn't that they aren't mimicking Apple enough, but that they mimic Apple too much. Rather than trying to out-Apple Apple, Google should out-Google everyone else.They have a mission – to organize the world's information. Android – for all its strengths – has nothing to do with organizing information. It's off strategy. Indeed, the only innovation happening with Android is copying what other companies are doing and making it open-source.Any company serious about the mobile space needs to have a deeper mission. Google can't produce excellence anymore because they've lost focus; they're trying to compete with every tech company in every field. Mobile, social, office software, browser, hosting, operating system (soon)… they're trying to do everything and there's no common thread behind any of it.The reason Apple is an amazing company isn't just that they produce a great experience. It's that they're committed to creating the best experiences in the world. They don't move away from that commitment. They're focused. They don't take on any project unless they're willing and able to fully commit to it with the vision of creating a better experience.The Googles of the world don't really stand for anything anymore. They used to, and that's how they got to be such a great company.

  • Pingback: Three Things Google Can Learn From Apple | Web Design Cool

  • Pingback: Business Tips from Small-Town USA | TheArtOfGivingUp

  • Tim

    The only best in class that Apple is the epitome of is sleazy overhype. I can't help but think that everytime Steve Jobs opens his mouth, nothing that comes out is the truth. “Best of..”, “Incredible that..”, “Magical browsing.. (but no Flash)” blah blah blah. hey Steve, why don't you focus on making good products, like phones that can be actually used for calling, instead of overhype. Consumers should really someday experience honesty from Apple.

  • Thoka

    Your comparison is based on a rather blurry perception.Apple is marketing a consumer product, while Google is promoting a platform. The target audiences couldn´t be more different. If you like to compare adds, lets take this to a Google product advertisement: Google Search? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nnsSUqgkDwUNo maple-sirup-voice-over, no smiling babies(at least no visual), no tada-testimonials of the obvious – just the product and some french stockmusic and the whole world inside your head…Is this lopsided article the old designer-needs-to-be-in-love-with apple romance? …grow up

  • Pingback: "Usability and experience is not the same" – a brilliant article on creating user experiences « BIS Competence Center

  • Anonymous

    Text in silver color is hard to read (this blog). Usability?

    • Anonymous

      Style is also important. Sometimes you need to sacrifice usability for experience.

      • Anonymous

        If I can hardly read the stuff where to begin anything else?

  • http://www.spacify.com/bedroom-furniture.htm Modern Bedroom Sets

    Holistic in two senses: One, looking at the end-to-end experience from the customers perspective, which includes product quality, site usability, content, …

  • http://www.spacify.com/platform-beds.htm Contemporary Platform Beds

    They’re also hoping big companies like Microsoft and Google will help schools to …. “We can learn a lot from new technology and we don’t always want to be …

  • http://www.casamodern.com/traditional-italian-furniture.htm Italian Bedroom Furniture

    This means that we can get bigger displays within the same form
    factor. …. Google Maps (excellent): we find the mapping
    experience to be much better on …

  • http://adhost.dk/kompetencer/soegemaskineoptimering Søgemaskineoptimering

    Let’s Not Forget The Worst Part About Apple Eliminating Google From The iPhone … These 3 Things Keep Pushing Interest Rates Lower And Lower … How could there ever have been optimism about such an approach? … One of the most consistent findings in online usability is that users …. Learn More » …