So what are UX and UI in the first place? UX design refers to the term “user experience design“, while UI stands for “user interface design”. Both elements are crucial to a product and work closely together. But despite their professional relationship, the roles themselves are quite different, referring to very different aspects of the product development process and the design discipline.
Before we consider the key differences between UX and UI, let’s first define what each term means individually.
User experience design is a human-first way of designing products. Don Norman, a cognitive scientist and co-founder of the Nielsen Norman Group Design Consultancy, is credited with coining the term “user experience” in the late 1990s. Here’s how he describes it:
“User experience encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products.”
– Don Norman, Cognitive Scientist & User Experience Architect
Clear, right? Well, you might note immediately that despite what I implied in the introduction, the definition has no reference to tech, no mention of digital, and doesn’t tell us all that much about what a UX designer actually does. But like all professions, it’s impossible to distill the process from just a few words.
Still, Don Norman’s definition tells us that UX Design encompasses any and all interactions between a potential or active customer and a company regardless of its medium. As a scientific process, it could be applied to anything; street lamps, cars, Ikea shelving, etc.
However, despite being a scientific term, its use since inception has been almost entirely within digital fields; one reason is that the tech industry started blowing up around the time of the term’s invention.
Essentially, UX applies to anything that can be experienced—be it a website, a coffee machine, or a visit to the supermarket. The “user experience” part refers to the interaction between the user and a product or service. User experience design, then, considers all the different elements that shape this experience.
A UX designer thinks about how the experience makes the user feel and how easy it is to accomplish their desired tasks. They also observe and conduct task analyses to see how users complete tasks in a user flow.
For example: How easy is the checkout process when shopping online? How easy is it for you to grip that vegetable peeler? Does your online banking app make it easy for you to manage your money?
The ultimate purpose of UX design is to create easy, efficient, relevant, and all-around pleasant experiences for the user.
We’ll answer the question “What does a UX designer do?” in section four. For now, here’s what you need to know about UX design in a nutshell:
- User experience design is the process of developing and improving the quality of interaction between a user and all facets of a company.
- User experience design is, in theory, a non-digital (cognitive science) practice but used and defined predominantly by digital industries.
- UX design is NOT about visuals; it focuses on the overall feel of the experience.
Despite it being an older and more practiced field, the question of “What is user interface design?” is difficult to answer because of its broad variety of misinterpretations. While user experience is a conglomeration of tasks focused on the optimization of a product for effective and enjoyable use, user interface design is its complement; the look and feel, the presentation and interactivity of a product.
But like UX, it is easily and often confused by the industries that employ UI designers—to the extent that different job posts will often refer to the profession as completely different things.
Look at job ads and job descriptions for user interface designers. You will mostly find interpretations of the profession that are akin to graphic design, sometimes extending also to branding design, and even frontend development.
Look at “expert” definitions of User Interface Design. You will mostly find descriptions that are in part identical to User Experience Design—even referring to the same structural techniques.
So which one is right? The sad answer is Neither.
So let’s set the record straight once and for all. Unlike UX, user interface design is a strictly digital term. A user interface is the point of interaction between the user and a digital device or product—like the touchscreen on your smartphone or the touchpad you use to select what kind of coffee you want from the coffee machine.
In relation to websites and apps, UI design considers the look, feel, and interactivity of the product. It’s all about making sure that the user interface of a product is as intuitive as possible, and that means carefully considering each and every visual, interactive element the user might encounter.
As user experience design, user interface design is a multi-faceted and challenging role. It is responsible for transforming a product’s development, research, content, and layout into an attractive, guiding and responsive experience for users.
We’ll look at the UI design process and specific tasks that a UI designer can expect in section four. Before we consider the main differences between UX and UI, let’s quickly recap on what user interface (UI) design is all about:
- User interface design is a purely digital practice. It considers all the visual, interactive elements of a product interface—including buttons, icons, spacing, typography, color schemes, and responsive design.
- The goal of UI design is to guide the user through a product’s interface visually. It’s all about creating an intuitive experience that doesn’t require the user to overthink!
- UI design transfers the brand’s strengths and visual assets to a product’s interface, ensuring the design is consistent, coherent, and aesthetically pleasing.
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