UX and UI are two terms that are often used interchangeably. But they actually mean two different things—and differentiating between them can be very helpful as you’re building a digital product.
UX refers to the overall user experience with a company, brand, service, or product; whereas UI refers to the user’s interaction with an app, software program, or computer system. In other words, UX is about the sum total of a user’s experience, whereas UI is about the individual pieces—in this case the screens, features, ease of access, etc.—that contribute to that experience.
Why is it important to know the difference?
When you’re developing a product, it helps to think of UI and UX as two separate things. If you only focus on UI, you may end up with a nice looking product, but it won’t necessarily complement your brand or help achieve your overall goals. On the other hand, if you only focus on UX, you may miss some of the smaller details that can make or break your product.
But when you understand the difference between UX and UI, you can create an intuitive product that achieves both your short and long-term goals, provides a great user experience from beginning to end, and places you squarely ahead of the competition.
What is UX?
The phrase “user experience” or UX, was coined by Don Norman, a cognitive scientist who worked at Apple, back in the 90s. He defined UX this way:
‘User experience’ encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products.
Although UX is often used to talk about a user’s experience with a digital product, such as a mobile app, it can technically refer to any aspect of a user’s experience with a brand: including waiting in line at a store, interacting with staff, and using the purchased product.
That said, UX is most often used to refer to someone’s experience with a digital product. Hence, UX design focuses on designing a digital product with the end-user in mind.
UX doesn’t just refer to the user’s physical experience, but also to their emotional experience. Does a product cause frustration because it’s not easy to use? Are the colors and graphics pleasing to the eye? UX encompasses all of this (and more), since it covers the user’s entire experience from start to finish.
What makes a good UX design?
UX professional Peter Morville came up with the main qualities that make for a positive user experience:
Experienced UX designers will already have some idea of how to check all those boxes, but typically, you’ll also want to gather data through research and testing.
What does a UX designer do?
In terms of a digital product, a UX designer is responsible for making sure the product provides a positive, successful user experience that achieves the organization’s goals.
Obviously, that can cover a lot, which is why UX designers often work with marketers, researchers, and, of course, UI designers. In fact, a UX designer has to be a bit of a Renaissance man: with skills in design, marketing, and project management.
They also conduct user research and testing and competitor analysis, strategize the best way to build the product, and help with content development. The truth is that the specifics of a UX designer’s role can vary based on the company and product, but it will usually involve at least some of these tasks.
What is UI?
While user experience is more about a user’s emotional experience, user interface is more about the technical experience. Or, put another way, while UX is about the sum total, UI is about some of the parts that go into that total. And while UX can refer to digital and non-digital experiences, UI is strictly a digital term.
Think about how you interact with your favorite app or streaming service. What steps do you go through to use it? Navigate through different screens? Enter your login information? How does the interface change as you navigate through? Are there any sounds or graphics that accompany certain steps in the process?
All of that is UI. Technically, UI refers to the interface, or point of interaction, between a user and a digital product or device. (An example of an interface is the keyboard of your computer or the touch screen of your iPhone.)
But when we talk about UI design, we’re usually including the screens, buttons, icons, and other elements that make up your interaction with a digital product or device. That includes not just the touchscreen of your iPhone, but the way the home-screen is set up, the ease of navigating through your different apps, the sounds your phone makes when you get a call or text message, and more.
What makes a good UI design?
A good UI design anticipates the user’s needs and makes it easy—and enjoyable—for the user to fulfill those needs. Obviously, visual design is a hugely important part of that. Things like clashing colors, small or unreadable text, and confusing flow can make a product difficult to use. The best designs are intuitive, aesthetically pleasing, and crystal clear.
As an example, some of the elements UI takes into consideration include:
- Color schemes
- Input fields
But there’s more to it than just ease of use. A strategic UI design will help not just your end-users, but you as well. For example, a big, bright button can prompt your user to take a certain action.
What does a UI designer do?
A UI designer is responsible for translating a company’s brand to the digital product, and, of course, for making sure the product is easy and enjoyable to use.
A UI designer’s job usually includes:
- Designing visual elements like screens, graphics, and animations
- Making sure the product adapts well to different screen sizes
- Working with the developer to implement the design
That last one brings up an important point: while some designers are also developers, design and development are two different tasks, typically performed by different people.
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