UI Does Not Equal UX

There is a lot of discussion around UI and UX. Countless times we'll see "UI/UX" written in job postings, mentioned in meetings, etc., as if they are interchangeable, or as if they are one and the same. But what does that even mean?

A UX designer friend of mine was telling me of a meeting they were in the other day.

Executive: "We need to address the UI/UX."
UX Designer: "What do you mean? The underlying user flows, or the visual elements, or what exactly?"
Executive: "I mean the UI/UX, this button should be naturally on the left - where I would expect it to be."

Of course, we will not go into the executive that says "I" too much here, as that is a whole other post... but people talking about UI and UX as if they are one and the same seems to now be a pretty standard situation.

Let's clear up a common misunderstanding; UI does not equal UX. There... I said it. People may see UX as Interface Design but it is not that alone.

If you have a job listed as UI/UX, you need to ask yourself exactly what is it that you expect that person to do? While some designers may play both roles, especially in a very small company, it is worth remembering that each role requires different skills, and people that can do both well are very hard to find. I know several visionary experience designers who are exceptional at understanding their user base, but couldn't put together a visual design to save their lives and, I know amazing UI designers that put together great interfaces, but have no clue how to conduct usability testing. And that is just fine. It is the reason why both roles exist and are not the same. A quick search on Indeed.com returned 6570 jobs for "UX designer" which included everything from User Experience Designer/Developer to Interaction Designer, UX Engineer, UX Architect and, of course, the favorite -- UI/UX Designer. This can certainly be incredibly confusing for people new to UX design, or aspiring to be UX designers.

Is this role really responsible for both the UI and UX components of a solution? More importantly, can the same person actually do both well enough for a product to be successful? Especially given that each requires enough time and effort as to be a job within itself. To answer this, let's take a look at what each role actually involves.

Experience Design: Incorporates the consideration of every aspect of a user's interaction with an entity. It evokes all their senses triggering a perception of the entity's meaning and value, as well as forging an emotional connection with it. UX can be used in the design of any medium -- a service, a website, an application, an event etc. It encompasses many disciplines such as cognitive science, computer science, design, human factors and psychology. A UX designer also works with many other business functions such as marketing, communications, design, architecture and support to ensure that the experience is cohesive all the way through from start to finish.

UI Design: The goal of user interface design is to make a user's interaction with an entity as simple and efficient as possible, aiding them to accomplish their goals. It combines visual design, interaction design and information architecture to present an experience to a user.

UI is very clearly an incredibly important part of UX design... It is not, therefore, synonymous with, but a key part of UX.

This being said, there are clearly skill sets that pertain to each discipline when you are recruiting for a UI designer and a UX designer, and both of these roles are equally as important to your success. Various companies use different descriptions and titles, but there are definitely some trends emerging in the types of skills these two roles require.

UI usually pertains to applications or web sites, but let's expand on this to the experience of anything. UI could be called the "presentation layer"; the layer that the user sees and interacts with. This is also true with the "presentation layer" of how a workplace looks, how a restaurant looks, how a hotel looks. It is in the positioning, the alignment, the colors and the way it all makes you feel when you see it and use it.

The fundamentals of UX design typically used in software and product can also be taken into the physical world. For example, whether designing an application or a physical world experience, designers can consider Norman's three levels of cognitive processing.

Visceral
This is the immediate reaction we have to something. It is the reaction of our senses, for example, the things we see and hear before we have even had a significant level of interaction. Think back to when you last saw an app for the first time and immediately liked it, or walked into a restaurant and immediately felt good about it as it looked great and had a fantastic smell of deliciousness in the air. This immediate reaction to our sensory inputs is what makes us instantly decide what is good or bad. Think of the impact of this. As a designer you should always strive to make sure that your user has a positive reaction at this stage.

Behavioral
This is where usability and interaction play a role. It is about the functions that are being performed -- what does the product or solution actually do? Is it easy for the user to complete the actions they need to? Are they comfortable performing these actions? Here, designers should focus on how easily a user is able to understand the functions, the usability and the physical feel of the solution.

Reflective
This is a very powerful level of processing accessed through memory. It is the meaning the user associates to a product, solution or experience that makes them come back for more. Only by associating meaning can a user find true value in an experience.

A good experience designer should be able to think through and design the end-to-end experience for anything. This means utilizing a team which would include a specialist in the presentation layer for that particular experience, whether that is an interior designer or an Application Designer.

The way in which people emotionally connect with the experience will come from a variety of aspects, such as what they see and hear before, during and after their interaction. For example:

  • Viewing marketing and online reviews presenting the experience before the user experiences it for themselves.
  • How support or help is received in an error situation -- be that an error on a website, or the wrong food being served in a restaurant.
  • How easy it is to use -- how easy is it to order your food, or purchase that product?
  • How natural and comfortable it feels.
  • ... the list continues.

The key can be found in ensuring that the UX is designed end-to-end from a core understanding of the user through to design and delivery, whereas the UI is the presentation designed to expose the power of that design process underpinning the UX for the user. Combined, UI and UX are the two different aspects that literally define the success of your product.