What’s the Difference Between UI & UX Design?

UI and UX
Image via Flickr

User experience designer Joy Liu helped contribute to this article.

The digital world can be very exciting and puzzling. What are people talking about when they refer to the UI and UX of a product or website? Should you consider learning UX design yourself?

With better devices and an oversaturated marketplace, the audience today has a bigger appetite than ever before. They no longer want a product that simply works, but the product that is easiest to use and requires the least effort to get the job done. User Experience Design emerged to improve the interaction between a product and its audience. So what exactly are UI and UX and how do you tell the difference? These two terms are often interchanged and mischaracterized as the same thing, when in fact they are very different. Both require some technical knowledge—whether it has to do with digital technologies or analog products—but for different purposes.

To make things easier, think of a wrapped present. Good User Experience, UX, is the anticipation by the user, leading up to the unwrapping of the present. It is the feeling of untangling a ribbon, unwrapping the package, and opening the box. The element of surprise and built-up excitement to receive this mysterious object that someone has prepared for you.

User Interface, or UI, is the packaging material (festive paper or grocery store plastic bag?), the quality of the wrap (is it neatly folded or wrinkled with chewed edges?), and the placement and indication of openings. The wrapped present, as well as the interaction between the giver, the object, and the recipient, make up the entire experience. Meanwhile, the interface is a very important factor in that experience.

UI and UX

When dealing with digital products, a user-interface focused question may be “What color should the button be so the user will notice this immediately?” or “What should the overall color theme and imagery be so it invokes a young and energetic vibe?” On the other hand, a user-experience focused question may be, “Do we even need this button in the first place? What if it’s determined by the user’s location already?” or “Would a young and energetic vibe appeal to our target users?”

The two thought processes are not the same. The strategies and output for both the experience and the interface should be respected as two separate fields even though they are highly collaborative and share the same vision.

User Experience is fluid, it is ever-changing. I think it’s fascinating that I can shape and form the experience in any way. However, I think this is also where people find the concept difficult because UX is hard to define. There are so many factors, so many perspectives that you need to take into consideration when designing a product. And, this is the fun part because even if the idea is the same, there are so many paths you can take to reach the finish line.

A common question is “Do I need to learn code to design for web or for mobile?”

This is a trick question because the question is both yes and no. User experience design has two major components: human and technology. You have to learn about the users you are designing for, as well as research and learn about the technology you are building on. If you are designing a mobile application, it makes development much more efficient when designers know the constraints and ability of the given technology.

The no part comes in when a designer has a hard time switching hats. UX designers want to push the limits and see what new interactions can be discovered that make sense to the product. However, a common trait I find, especially with student designers, is that they are limited by their technical/coding skill set. They design from the perspective as if they are the ones building it, thus creativity is sacrificed by limited coding knowledge.

If you are working with a developer, ask questions: “Can we have this button do this when clicked? Can we slide the screen left to right for scrolling?” Do your homework and read about the technology or device for the product you are developing and you will be more comfortable pushing boundaries.

To learn more about UX design, check out Joy Liu’s UX design classes here.

Emily Potts FOLLOW >

Emily J. Potts has been a writer and editor in the design industry for more than 20 years. Currently she is an independent writer working for a variety of clients in the design industry. www.emilyjpotts.com