In conversations about product design, people often use the terms UI and UX interchangeably. Otherwise, they combine the two into one single term ‘UI/UX’ to vaguely reference the entire area of work. Why is that?
The reason why UI and UX are mixed up and lumped together so often is because the two come in a pair, like a fraternal twin. Although it’s generally understood that they are different in nature, they overlap under the broad umbrella of product design. And that is where the confusion lies.
Though the terms have been around in the world of interface design for quite some time, it’s extremely common for tech industry rookies to find it difficult to wrap their heads around the concepts. Apart from “What’s the difference?”, we often hear questions like “Aren’t they essentially the same?” and “Which one is which?” in inquiries about the pair. And that’s okay, we all start somewhere.
To help clear the air, we will explore this topic in three sections: (1) What UI and UX mean on their own, (2) how they’re different, and finally, (3) how they work together in the design process.
What is UI Design?
A user interface (UI) is the point where a user interacts with a machine, and UI design is the art of decorating that space. It aims to create enjoyable, attractive, and intuitive interfaces that ease a user’s interaction with a product.
What kind of work does it constitute?
First, there is visual design, where UI designers work on the cosmetic or look and feel of a product. This covers the arrangement of design elements like typefaces, color palettes, icons, illustrations, and page layouts in a way that is visually pleasant to the user.
There is also interaction design, where UI designers help users understand how they should navigate and interact with an interface. Whether a user instinctively knows to tap, swipe, or drag on an interface is where interaction design plays its role with clear and intuitive visual cues.
UI design is essential because it’s basically in charge of evoking positive emotional responses. A study on the aesthetic-usability effect found that aesthetics positively impact users’ perception of a product’s usability. Attractive UI can reduce feelings of distress when a user encounters minor usability issues. And that is a huge deal.
What is UX Design?
User experience (UX) is a term coined by Don Norman, referring to the overall experience that users have with a product. UX isn’t limited to only when a user is using a product, however. It encompasses every aspect of the product including branding, design, usability, and function.
User needs are of paramount importance in UX design. Why? Because the primary goal of UX design is to create products that allow users to achieve their goals. It is about making products that are valuable, practical, and useful in fulfilling real needs.
This is why to design UX is to practise empathy. To do good work, UX designers have to put themselves at the center of the design process to understand users’ problems, and craft accordingly. This includes defining target customers, studying search patterns, mapping user flows, carrying out user testing, and collecting feedback.
So, at your favorite e-commerce store, all the visual elements you interact with are the work of UI designers. But what makes you come back for more is probably not just the way it looks and feels pretty. You return because it’s easy to change your payment method, track your orders, claim and apply vouchers, process returns and refunds, and so on. Those all fall under user experience.
Core Differences Between UI and UX Design
The gap and distinction between user interface and user experience design grew with the increasing demand for more specialized roles in product design. To better understand the differences between UI and UX, we can categorize them into three parts:
1. The Goal
The objective of UI design is to create products that are visually appealing, intuitive, and responsive across different devices. Meanwhile, UX design aims to create products that solve real problems, and are purposeful and easy to use.
2. The Focus
UI focuses on the product, while UX focuses on the user. UI design is all about the look and feel of a product, while UX design concerns the overall function, value, and experience that a user gains from a product.
3. The Process
UI designers are responsible for design prototypes, design research, and graphic development. They work towards cohesive and intuitive design where visual elements look good, communicate their functions effectively, and are consistent across all corners of an interface. Throughout the design process, UI designers often refer to design principles and best practices for optimal results.
UX designers carry out user research, create user personas and scenarios, map out user flows, and develop wireframes before handing them over to UI designers. Heavily basing their decisions on user data, they ensure that everything a user needs to get to their goal is accessible, functional, and easy to use.
Here’s an infographic to sum it up:
How UI and UX Work Together
There’s no UI without UX, and vice versa.
Here’s an analogy. UI without UX is like an aesthetically pleasing umbrella made of materials that aren’t windproof, waterproof, or UV resistant. UX without UI is like a well-structured and perfectly functional umbrella with bad tailoring and a jarring appearance.
Whether you leave out one or the other, something will be amiss. User interface and user experience design cannot stand alone and apart from each other. Having said that, there are two scenarios that product designers want to avoid:
- Good UI, poor UX: A product has gorgeous design but is frustrating and challenging to use
- Good UX, poor UI: A product is easy and convenient to use but has distasteful design
When UI and UX designers work hand-in-hand, they achieve the best possible result — a functional AND attractive product. With both boxes ticked, it’s more likely for a product to perform consistently well in the market. One notable example of a brand with both great aesthetics and functionality is Apple. Their holistic application of visually pleasing design and their focus on ease-of-use across all their products have been huge factors in their long-standing success.
But between UI and UX, which comes first?
Because user experience design involves mapping out the entire experience, we can say that UX design comes first. After the user research, testing, and wireframing are done, UI designers bring the product to life by giving it visual appeal and optimizing it across different devices.
However, the two are generally interwoven in that iterations in UI and UX, more often than not, happen simultaneously as development progresses. After all, maintenance after launch in the product development cycle is an ongoing process. Whether users require new functionalities or performance improvements on a product, UX and UI designers both work together on responding to real-world feedback in order to deliver great user experiences that stand the test of time.
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