To understand usability and desirability in UX design, you have to get away from the idea that there’s competition between the two. In reality, both are subsets of the entire concept of user experience (UX) design, and the degree of usability and/or desirability of any product can lead to what makes truly great UX.

Usability is more concerned with the basic functionality of a product — a website, app, or anything else — whereas desirability refers to what compels users to actually want to use the product. This isn’t a distinction without a difference.

Understanding both of these vital elements of UX will increase your ability to design products that far outlive their initial usefulness — and actually delight your users.

Defining usability

Let’s first take a look at usability. The Nielsen Norman Group defines it as:

“Usability is a quality attribute that assesses how easy user interfaces are to use. The word ‘usability’ also refers to methods for improving ease-of-use during the design process.”

Usability is further broken down into these five elements:

  • The ease with which users can complete tasks in the user interface (UI) the first time they encounter it.
  • The speed with which users can complete tasks in the UI after they’ve learned the design.
  • How easily or intuitively users can return to a UI after a period of not using it, and find their way around again.
  • The number of mistakes users make in UI (including their severity), and how quickly they can recover from them.
  • How pleasant users find the UI.

Failure to design a usable product can lead to the following consequences, each of which is disastrous for a site, app, or platform:

  • Users leave.
  • Conversions drop.
  • Sales and revenue decrease.

Consider these scenarios: You’ve designed an app that lets users check the weather forecast.

An app with excellent usability is one where your users can check that forecast quickly and easily, with no friction getting in the way of their seeing the 7-day forecast for their area.

An app that suffers from problematic usability is one that crashes a lot, making it impossible for users to complete the task of checking the forecast.

Defining desirability

Desirability, on the other hand, is also part of UX, but it goes beyond just usability. Whereas usability deals with just the fundamentals of users being able to complete a task, desirability provides them with an enjoyable experience as they’re doing so. As such, it provides a certain “wow factor” that creates an emotional bond with the user, compelling them to keep using the product because it offers them pleasure, which is a reward in and of itself.

Zurb defines desirability as follows:

“Desirability should be how we can drive a user to take action through design.”

In other words, the more appealing a product’s design is, the likelier the user will be to take the action(s) the product wants you to take.

This UX attribute is also what enables brands to charge a premium for their product in the marketplace, especially when surrounded by a crowded sea of similar products that don’t have the same desirability.

Consider these scenarios: You’ve just designed a platform that meets all the basic requirements of usability (it doesn’t crash, it’s fast, it’s available on mobile, etc.). This platform is an online marketplace that allows designers to sell their design services to clients all over the world.

A platform that would have more desirability is one where designers are allowed to keep all of the proceeds of each sale they make.

A platform that wouldn’t be nearly as desirable is one where, in order to pay for the privilege of using my platform, designers would have to pay a certain percentage to my platform of each sale they make.

Naturally, the first scenario would drive more designers to action, not just to use the platform, but also making more of their services available on the platform.

How designers should look at the two

Now you understand why it’s not a question of either-or: They are both integral to UX. You can look at them as various stages of UX design.

Usability is really the very least that a product needs to have for it to have a chance in the marketplace. It is the bare minimum of design, ensuring that the user can get things done on the platform, with the app, etc.

Think of desirability as an extra attribute that goes beyond the bare minimum, which makes the user want to keep using the product. If you can design your product to have desirability on top of mere usability, then you can really drive adoption of your product.

Ideally, your product should have both of them, which demonstrates exceptional UX design. But even popular products don’t always have to have both.

Amazon, the world’s biggest e-tailer, is certainly usable because you can easily find whatever product you’re searching for — Amazon’s SEO algorithm makes sure of that. Of course, you could make a good case that the site isn’t particularly desirable to use because of its bare-bones aesthetic, extremely cluttered layout, and extra charges if you want your products shipped to you faster.

Then there’s Facebook. Its recent data-breach scandal revealed that one of the factors that allowed third-parties to poach user data without their knowledge is the failure of some users to lock down their privacy. That’s because a good number of users just aren’t familiar with navigating Facebook’s somewhat complicated and/or unclear privacy settings. You could make the case that this makes the site not so usable, at least in that regard. Of course, when we speak of desirability, Facebook is through the roof in that department, with 2.2 billion monthly active users on the platform as of March 31, 2018.

Tips for balancing usability and desirability

Ideally, designers should give their product a fine balance of usability and desirability. Admittedly, that is easier said than done since there are many factors to consider.

By implementing the following tips into your designs, you’ll be better able to strike this sometimes elusive balance.

To achieve usability:

  • Ensure a feature is actually being used by your users. If not, get rid of it after consulting your analytics.
  • Give your users surveys to fill out after they complete a user test session to really determine what they used and what they didn’t.
  • Create an easy onboarding experience that users can follow along with.

To achieve desirability:

  • Ask yourself if your product is truly providing a solution to a real problem in the world.
  • Check if your target audience really wants your product in the first place, as well as if it appeals to them. Here’s a list of market research tools to help you do just that.
  • Engage your users within the context of their intended use of the product.

Usability and desirability are key to excellent UX

These two design elements are two components of UX. The ideal scenario is to design a product that has both — making it functional, but also very enjoyable to use again and again.

Sometimes, both aren’t necessarily required to design successful products that make a lot of money and have lots of users.

However, from purely a designer’s standpoint, it should behoove you to shoot for both in your design since that demonstrates user centric design — which is the most important part of UX.