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The Difference Between UX and UI Design – A Beginner’s Guide

UX and UI: Two terms that are often used interchangeably, but actually mean very different things. So what exactly is the difference?



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We’ve all overheard conversations, walking down hip streets of the world’s tech capitals, discussions about the great ‘UX’ of a product, or the poor ‘UI’ of a website. Is it a secret language you will never be privy to? Are these people just using slang to look cool?

Well, okay, probably yes to the latter, but a determinate NO to the rest. If you’re keen to learn what exactly UX and UI mean and how they differ, you’ve come to the right place. Below is a breakdown of what we’re going to cover in this article.

Read on to learn what the terms UX and UI even mean, which of the two areas of design are better paid, and how to become a UX designer or UI designer.




1. What are UX and UI in the first place?

First things first: What do UX and UI actually mean? The people you have eavesdropped on are actually discussing two professions that, despite having been around for decades, and in theory for centuries, have been defined by the tech industry as UX and UI design.

UX design refers to the term “user experience design”, while UI stands for “user interface design”. Both elements are crucial to a product and work closely together. But despite their professional relationship, the roles themselves are quite different, referring to very different aspects of the product development process and the design discipline.


Before we consider the key differences between UX and UI, let’s first define what each term means individually.

What is user experience (UX) design?

User experience design is a human-first way of designing products. Don Norman, a cognitive scientist and co-founder of the Nielsen Norman Group Design Consultancy, is credited with coining the term “user experience” in the late 1990s. Here’s how he describes it:

“User experience encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products.”

– Don Norman, Cognitive Scientist & User Experience Architect

Clear, right? Well you might note immediately that despite what I implied in the introduction, the definition has no reference to tech, no mention of digital, and doesn’t tell us all that much about what a UX designer actually does. But like all professions, it’s impossible to distill the process from just a few words.

Still, Don Norman’s definition tells us that, regardless of its medium plenty of non-digital UX (and there’s lots out there!) UX Design encompasses any and all interactions between a potential or active customer and a company.

As a scientific process it could be applied to anything; street lamps, cars, Ikea shelving, and so on.

UX and the digital world

However, despite being a scientific term, its use since inception has been almost entirely within digital fields; one reason for this being that the tech industry started blowing up around the time of the term’s invention.

Essentially, UX applies to anything that can be experienced—be it a website, a coffee machine, or a visit to the supermarket. The “user experience” part refers to the interaction between the user and a product or service. User experience design, then, considers all the different elements that shape this experience.

What does UX design involve?

A UX designer thinks about how the experience makes the user feel, and how easy it is for the user to accomplish their desired tasks. They also observe and conduct task analyses to see how users actually complete tasks in a user flow.

For example: How easy is the checkout process when shopping online? How easy is it for you to grip that vegetable peeler? Does your online banking app make it easy for you to manage your money?

The ultimate purpose of UX design is to create easy, efficient, relevant, and all-round pleasant experiences for the user.

We’ll answer the question “What does a UX designer do?” more thoroughly in section four. For now, here’s what you need to know about UX design in a nutshell:



      • User experience design is the process of developing and improving the quality of interaction between a user and all facets of a company.

      • User experience design is, in theory, a non-digital (cognitive science) practice, but used and defined predominantly by digital industries.

      • UX design is NOT about visuals; it focuses on the overall feel of the experience.



What is user interface (UI) design?

Despite it being an older and more practiced field, the question “What is user interface design?” is difficult to answer because of its broad variety of misinterpretations.

While user experience is a conglomeration of tasks focused on the optimization of a product for effective and enjoyable use, user interface design is its complement; the look and feel, the presentation and interactivity of a product.

But like UX, it is easily and often confused by the industries that employ UI designers—to the extent that different job posts will often refer to the profession as completely different things.

If you look at job ads and job descriptions for user interface designers, you will mostly find interpretations of the profession that are akin to graphic design, sometimes extending also to branding design, and even frontend development.

If you look at “expert” definitions of User Interface Design, you will mostly find descriptions that are in part identical to User Experience Design—even referring to the same structural techniques.

So which one is right? The sad answer is: Neither.

UI and the digital world

So let’s set the record straight once and for all. Unlike UX, user interface design is a strictly digital term.

A user interface is the point of interaction between the user and a digital device or product—like the touchscreen on your smartphone, or the touchpad you use to select what kind of coffee you want from the coffee machine.

In relation to websites and apps, UI design considers the look, feel, and interactivity of the product. It’s all about making sure that the user interface of a product is as intuitive as possible, and that means carefully considering each and every visual, interactive element the user might encounter.

A UI designer will think about icons and buttons, typography and color schemes, spacing, imagery, and responsive design.

What does UI design involve

Like user experience design, user interface design is a multi-faceted and challenging role. It is responsible for the transference of a product’s development, research, content and layout into an attractive, guiding and responsive experience for users.

We’ll look at the UI design process and specific tasks that a UI designer can expect in section four. Before we consider the main differences between UX and UI, let’s quickly recap on what user interface (UI) design is all about:



      • User interface design is a purely digital practice. It considers all the visual, interactive elements of a product interface—including buttons, icons, spacing, typography, color schemes, and responsive design.

      • The goal of UI design is to visually guide the user through a product’s interface. It’s all about creating an intuitive experience that doesn’t require the user to think too much!

      • UI design transfers the brand’s strengths and visual assets to a product’s interface, making sure the design is consistent, coherent, and aesthetically pleasing.



Now we have a clear-cut definition of both UX and UI, let’s consider the key differences between the two.

2. What’s the difference between UX and UI design?

There’s an analogy I like to use to describe the different parts of a (digital) product:

If you imagine a product as the human body, the bones represent the code which give it structure. The organs represent the UX design: measuring and optimizing against input for supporting life functions. UI design represents the cosmetics of the body; its presentation, its senses and reactions.

But don’t worry if you’re still confused! You’re not the only one!

As Rahul Varshney, co-creator of Foster.fm puts it:

“User Experience (UX) and User Interface (UI) are some of the most confused and misused terms in our field. A UI without UX is like a painter slapping paint onto a canvas without thought; while UX without UI is like the frame of a sculpture with no paper mache on it. A great product experience starts with UX followed by UI. Both are essential for the product’s success.”

If you’ve got room for one more analogy, Dain Miller sums up the relationship between UX and UI design perfectly:

“UI is the saddle, the stirrups, and the reins. UX is the feeling you get being able to ride the horse.”

—Dain Miller, Web Developer

It’s important to understand that UX and UI do go hand-in-hand; you can’t have one without the other. However, you don’t need to possess UI design skills to be a UX designer, and vice versa—UX and UI constitute separate roles with separate processes and tasks!

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