“Oh, [your name here] works with computers, they can fix your PC/Printer/Phone problem!”
If you work in a development or tech career you’ll be familiar with the above conversation.
It doesn’t matter if we tell them that we don’t work as IT support, they still bring us virus laden PCs and phones stuffed full of photos from 2010. What makes it worse is we usually end up fixing the problem!
Because we work with computers everyday we know common faults and troubleshooting techniques. This is a side effect of our main jobs. Unfortunately, some people only see the computer fixing part, as that is what they understand the most about. If you tell your gran you refactored a complex component or redesigned a CI/CD pipeline their eyes will glaze over. If you tell granny you made your computer faster she’s all ears!
Well this painful conversation is very similar to the UI vs UX problem.
User Interface Design (UI) and User Experience Design (UX) are disciplines that often get used interchangeably, but the two are different. There’s a design ecosystem they both exist in, with inevitable overlaps.
What is UI Design
User interface (UI) design is the process designers use to build interfaces in software or computerised devices, focusing on looks or style.
UI design tends to be more concerned with look, feel, branding and interactions.
As human beings we all have an innate ability to tell if something is aesthetically pleasing. However, it’s very difficult to tell someone else why we find something aesthetically pleasing. A good designer will be able to review a design and say that the use of complementary colours, strong alignment, use of whitespace or beautiful typography have made something look good. These skills take many years to build up and you never really stop learning as modern tastes and trends keep shifting.
As well as looking nice, good UI design has to feel nice. Using an application or website should be pleasurable, or at very least not be a chore. Buttons and links should be obvious, forms easy to fill out, navigation straightforward, processes having logical steps and progression. This is where we start getting into the core of ‘Interaction Design’. Being aware of best practices and guidelines can help make sure we build something that is enjoyable to use on any device.
Modern touch screen devices are the result of many years of careful user interface design. Swiping, pinching and multi-touch are great examples of how UI designers have come up with clever ways to complete a task.
What is UX Design
UX Design is trickier to define as its scope is very broad. It’s easier to frame it like this: What is a user’s experience of your product start to finish? Was it positive, productive, pleasurable, easy? A user’s experience of an application or website is entirely subjective. We cannot create or destroy an experience, only design our products to give users an enjoyable journey that suits their specific needs.
In order to design this journey, we must know more about our users and their needs so our ideas are relevant and grounded in data and empathy. We want to have a firm grasp of the following before ever trying to come up with solutions:
Who are our users?
Size of user base
What are our users’ needs?
How do our users use our digital product?
Industry or customer focus
PC based vs mobile vs hybrid
High competency users vs casual users
Environment, eg. home, out and about or on a busy trading floor
What are our users’ pain points?
Excessive interactions required for everyday tasks
Lack of user control, cannot redo or edit inputs
Illogical structure of content
We work to discover the above using different research methods, depending on the specific requirements of the project. Methods can include surveys, interviews, usability tests, card sorting, stakeholder workshops and more.
Once we have an understanding of the user we can far more effectively empathise and create solutions that are relevant and useful. Often UX Designers will craft low detail prototypes and test them with users so we can catch missteps early. This also allows us to iterate quickly, always keeping in mind the findings of our earlier research.
‘User experience’ encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products
- Don Norman, Founder of Nielsen Norman Group and father of modern UX.
Ultimately for a client, a UX Designers role is to reduce risk by making sure products will be fit for users, and spot opportunities that might have otherwise been missed.
How does UI and UX work together
Part of the reason that UI and UX get used so interchangeably is this:
UX Design and UI Design are both part of the User Centred Design Ecosystem.
A good way to explain the difference is to imagine you are building a house.
Before you start, you would ask who will be living there, what do they need, how many are children, how many cars? This is user research.
When you start thinking about the layout required, the number of floors, what parking is needed, what other buildings are nearby, how does this building fit into people’s lives? This is looking at service design.
When all that is sorted, you would decorate it, design furniture for it, make it functional and desirable, this is User Interface Design.
User Experience Design is the generalist of these roles, it covers many different disciplines.
Without UI Design this house would be an empty shell. Without UX Design you could design a beautiful country cottage, when the client really needed a warehouse.
Much like the non-techy’s Developer vs IT Support confusion, UI and UX Design shouldn’t be used interchangeably, even if there is overlap.
User Interface Design is more concerned with look and feel, User Experience Design is broader and covers the user’s entire experience of a product from start to finish. UX Design does incorporate UI Design, but a UX Designer should be doing a lot more research, testing and iterating ideas.
Having only User Interface Design instead of User Experience Design could land you with a very nice application that isn’t relevant to what users actually need. For that reason, a UX Designer should be involved in virtually every project, and preferably as early as possible in the design process so you can start on strong foundations.