The difference between UX and UI isn’t always incredibly clear, but the two do have unique duties and tasks. If you ask an expert, most will say that user experience (UX) design deals with a person’s overall experience not just of a product, but of the entire company behind that product. User interface (UI) design, on the other hand, focuses on how that person interacts with that product.
Both fields have grown in popularity since the dot com boom of the late ‘90s, and only continued to increase with the proliferation of tech-related jobs and startups in the United States and around the world. An unintended side effect of that growth has been that sometimes UX and UI become conflated. People tend to use them interchangeably, and even assume that both are part of the same job description.
While the two roles are complimentary, we’ll tell you in this article why they are far from the same thing. Here we’ll explain the difference between UX and UI: what the duties are for each job and what skills they rely on.
UX vs UI: Both Fields Defined
As stated earlier, UX encompasses the entire experience of the person using it with a company and its product(s). This can include interactions with employees, how the person feels when using a certain product, and how easy it is for them to navigate a company’s website to find the information they need, and more. While the job began in the tech world, it can now influence anything from the IT to the marketing arm of a given company.
“User experience” was first recorded as an industry term in the late 1970s and early 1980s, in publications like E.C. Edwards and D.J. Kasik’s “User Experience With the CYBER Graphics Terminal.” This is the same time that graphical user interfaces (GUIs) were introduced to home computing, making the systems accessible to people who didn’t know how to code.
In the 1990s the term was popularized by cognitive scientist Don Norman during his time at Apple, when he gave himself the job title of chief user experience architect at the company. When it was first born, the term focused very much on the interactions between a human user and a computer system, but Norman’s own definition of UX is broad enough to encompass much more:
“‘User experience’ encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products.”
Today UX has expanded to include things like customer service, leading some to call the job customer experience, or just “experience design.” According to designer and information architect Peter Moreville, there are seven facets of the user experience: useful, usable, desirable, findable, accessible, credible, and valuable. They fit together in a honeycomb shape, illustrating their interdependent nature; all of those things contribute to the value of a product, and they are all part of UX design.
Another way to look at UX design is enhancing customer satisfaction, and therefore loyalty, by improving the usability and pleasure provided by the interaction between a customer and a product. The field has been described as “socially minded, with an analytical element.” The duties of a UX designer can be broken down into four areas, each encompassing different aspects of the job:
- Strategy and Content: This includes analysis of customers and competitors, product structure and strategy, and content development.
- Wireframing/Prototyping: Coming up with the basic frame of a product, then testing and tweaking it until it’s ready for a UI designer to work with. This phase also includes development and planning.
- Evaluation and Iteration: The iterative design process involves continually prototyping, testing, and making adjustments. Product testing and refinement take center stage, enabling the UX designer to make ongoing improvements.
- Execution and Analytics: The end phase, where the UX designer will coordinate with UI designers and developers, track goals and product integration, and analyze their results.
Ken Norton, an ex-product manager at Google who now works at its venture capital arm, describes UX design as solving a problem. “Start with a problem we’d like to solve,” Norton said in an interview. “UX design is focused on anything that affects the user’s journey to solve that problem, positive or negative, both on-screen and off. UI design is focused on how the product’s surfaces look and function.”
If UX design encompasses almost every aspect of the customer’s experience, what is user interface design? UI Design is the complement to UX design. If UX is the skeleton of an idea, then UI is its “skin.” A UI designer focuses largely on the aesthetics of a product and applies only to the digital space. UI encompasses everything about a digital product the user actually interacts with. UI designers decide the shape and color and placement of things like buttons and scrollbars on a web page, the layout of menus, and how interactive that page is overall. The end goal of a UI designer is to make something attractive to the user that is easy for them to interact with and guides them through whatever process that product is set up to complete. Their role can be broken down into two umbrella categories:
- Look and feel: This is the phase in which the UI designer conducts customer analysis, research on design, develops the branding and graphics, and makes user guides or storylines.
- Responsiveness and interactivity: This is when prototypes are tested for usability, the product’s interactivity and animations are checked, the product is adapted to be optimized for any screen (mobile, laptop, desktop), and the product is implemented with the help of a developer.
While the goal for UX designers is more nebulously defined, UI designers know their job is to translate whatever brand they’re working with into the design of the end product. Aesthetically, that product should communicate the brand’s message. UI designers visually and interactively guide the user as seamlessly as possible through a product’s interface; the best UI is the one a user is the least aware of. Subtle hints and directives to the user are just as much a part of UI as the visual elements. As it is largely aesthetic, UI design lends itself to those with a visual design skill set.
What’s the Difference Between UX and UI?
When people ask that question, they’re aiming at the wrong mark, says Usability Hour Founder Craig Morrison. The two are complimentary, not in competition. He phrases it this way:
“. . . it’s kind of like asking, ‘What is the difference between red paint and the chemicals the paint is made up of?’ There is no difference. Red paint is made up of all sorts of different chemicals that when combined together make red paint. Just as the user experience is made up of a bunch of different components, user interface design being just one of them, that when combined together make up the user experience.”
Another analogy often used to illustrate the difference between UX and UI is that of a movie review website. If the site is perfectly usable to find a film, it has great UI, but if it only has data on major releases and someone can’t find the indie film they want, that’s bad UX. You can’t have a great product without both components.
Learn more about the differences between UX and UI as a student of Lesley University’s online BS in Design for User Experience program. In our program, you’ll learn to research, conceptualize, design, and prototype user interfaces and experiences for digital interactions. You’ll be prepared to apply and implement all aspects of the UX design process, from wire-framing to user testing and concept delivery, and upon graduating, have a comprehensive portfolio of work displaying visual and interactive design know-how.
Our skilled and experienced faculty will teach will prepare you for a career in the in-demand field of digital design. Plus, our online format makes it so you can balance your education with your life.