The Difference Between UI and UX

by on 15th August 2011 with 13 Comments

In today’s creative and technical environment, the terms “UI” (User Interface) and “UX” (User Experience) are being used more than ever. Overall, these terms are referring to specialties and ideas that have been around for years prior to the introduction of the abbreviated terminology.

But the problem with these new abbreviations is more than just nomenclature. Unfortunately, the terms are quickly becoming dangerous buzzwords: using these terms imprecisely and in often completely inappropriate situations is a constant problem for a growing number of professionals, including: designers, job seekers, and product development specialists. Understanding the proper separation, relationship and usage of the terms is essential to both disciplines.

UI != UX

The most common misconception that you will hear in the workplace, in client meetings and often in job listings or job requirements is the inadvertent combination or interchange of the terms. In many cases, the incorrect expectation is that an interface designer by default understands or focuses on user experience because their work is in direct contact with the user. The simple fact is that user interface is not user experience. The confusion may simply be because both abbreviations start with the letter “U”. More likely, it stems from the overlap of the skill-sets involved in both disciplines. They are certainly related areas, and in fact many designers are knowledgeable and competent in both.

“UI refers to the aggregation of approaches and elements that allow the user to interact with a system.”

However, despite the overlap, both fields are substantially different in nature and – more importantly – in their overall objectives and scope. User interface is focused on the actual elements that interact with the user – basically, the physical and technical methods of input and output. UI refers to the aggregation of approaches and elements that allow the user to interact with a system. This does not address details such as how the user reacts to the system, remembers the system and re-uses it.

Such problems bring us to the user experience. Don’t be fooled! User experience is much more than just the end result of user interface. Instead, I have always found it best to consider user experience as the reactor or nucleus of a brand. A brand being, in essence, the sum of the experiences that a person has with a company or organization. User experience is the goal. Not just the goal of an interface, but of a product or interaction with an organization. When good user experience is achieved, every desirable or positive effect that one could possibly think of flows from it. UX is focused on success of the whole. In reality, the product is not the sum of its parts; the experience is.

“Consider user experience as the reactor or nucleus of a brand.”

At the end of the day, that is all we get to leave the user with: a memory. As we all know, human memory is astounding but it’s imperfect. Every detail contributes to the ingredients of a good user experience, but when it all comes down to it, the user will remember products in somewhat skewed way. UX contains a much bigger picture than UI does but it still relies on the smallest details to drive it. This understanding is the most powerful asset anyone can have in product development.

UI is a Tool

User interface is one of the most powerful tools at our disposal in the quest for great user experience. Why? Simply, the interface is the most tactile, visceral and visible method with which our users interact with us. UI is the front line. This is possibly the best explanation for why the two terms are so often used interchangeably or combined into one.

Incorrect Usage is Dangerous

Communication is complex and can be confusing. The development of precise and specialized terminology facilities easier communication. But what happens when we are effectively not speaking the same language?

“Unthinkable amounts of time and money are spent to dance around the incorrect focus and usage of these terms.”

What if I said, “Use a screw” meaning a corkscrew metal fastener to an engineer assembling a product, but he thought it referred to an angle bracket or chemical adhesive? The product might have some serious problems. Granted, interfaces and experiences aren’t going to literally blow up in our face. However, the effect is no less powerful. Unthinkable amounts of time and money are spent to dance around the incorrect focus and usage of these terms. Eventually, wasting time and money will put a company out of business or cause products to fail. Improper application of the concepts can be disastrous.

Finding the Right Designer

Some of the most common usage failure for the UI and UX terms is where it matters most: job listings and requirements. It is already difficult to locate excellent candidates for specialized jobs such as interface design and user experience design. But it’s certainly more difficult to hire the right person for the job when the skill set and design focus are miscommunicated. It’s expensive to hire a specialist, and it’s even more costly to hire one that cannot solve the problem you need solved. More often than not, the job requirements and responsibilities are skewed toward the UI designer job description but come loaded with the responsibility and expectation of a UX designer.

Responsibility For the Problem

Whether a UI or UX designer, there is still the element of design. Design is a solution to a problem. When roles are clearly defined and universally understood, it’s much easier to attack a problem, propose a solution and execute on it. In the case of UI and UX, the problem normally applies to situations where the responsibility for the interface and the experience is assigned to one designer who simply does not have overall control of both aspects.

It’s tough to own up to a problem when the ability to solve it is not in your hands. A UI designer may have the ability to create interactive designs, icons, colors, text, and affect a number of other elements that solve problems dealing with direct interactions to the user. Those elements are fantastic tools to affect user experience but they are only part of the equation. The user experience is influenced by a multitude of things such as marketing copy, speed, functional performance, color scheme, personality, customer support, set expectations, financial approach, visualization… well, you get the idea.

“It is not that one designer cannot handle both areas. It is about the tools and ability to problem solve.”

It isn’t fair or practical to tell the UI designer that they are responsible for all these things and more. It isn’t that user experience cannot be designed. If the situation were reversed for a UX designer it would be equally difficult. In order for a designer to rightly take ownership of the UX problem, they must be enabled to recommend and effect changes, implementations and decisions that control the experience. The flawed understanding is about designer focus and scope. It is not that one designer cannot handle both areas. It is about the tools and ability to problem solve. Effectively, a builder without any tools is just as powerless to build as a person with no skill or knowledge.

Conclusion

The first step to successfully attacking any problem is to understand what must be done. Understanding the difference between UI and UX is an intellectual asset with staggering ramifications.

From hiring the right person for the job to simply understanding what is required to approach the problem, proper knowledge of the UI and UX terminology is a simple way to facilitate better communication, better problem solving, better design and better user experience.

Comments & Discussion

13 Comments

  • http://boxed.hu/en/ Eduárd

    Hey Shawn, I aggree with you on that. I have written an article about this myself. My starting point was a bit different, but the two of say are saying the same thing (and probably many others): UI and UX are not the same. If you wish to check out my short rant on this, you may do that here: http://boxed.hu/en/articles/ui-and-ux/

  • http://zykinetics.com/ Gary

    Having just recently been job hunting myself, I was irked to see user-experience designer as a title to many jobs which were strictly UI focused. Although I would consider myself in the UX category, I don’t like the term as it is used. Alas, to market myself in the google era, I needed to adopt the title. Despite your impassioned plea, the term is already lost it’s meaning.

  • http://theborsky.com Shawn Borsky

    @Eduard I enjoyed your rant. I really hope the idea is spread more.

    @Gary I feel your pain, but I don’t believe all is lost yet. Even now I am starting to see intelligent companies listing separate job reqs for UX designers. I have personally gotten clients and jobs by responding to the job posts : applying and professionally correcting the potential employer while representing my enhanced value because I separate and understand both skill-sets. Either way, good luck to you.

  • http://vigilance.co.in Dee Kay

    Great Article. Thanks for sharing.. I was always wondering for exact difference between UI and UX. you made it clear in your article :)

  • http://www.webdesigncreare.co.uk Kim Ruddock

    The terms UI and UX had always confused me a little but this article distinguishes the two well. UI is the practical, direct means by which a user interacts and this is a part of the UX which forms the bigger picture and keeps people coming back for more. I had just assumed they were entirely different entities but actually I see now that the two are intrinsically linked but distinct disciplines.

  • http://tesmond.blogspot.com/ Andrew

    While it is good to clarify the distinction between the skills sets, it appears clear to me that the skills sets do help inform each other.

    I would expect people who are working in computer application development who specialise in either of those fields to have a good grounding in the other field.

    In fact studing the related fields helps you improve your abilities in your existing field, allowing you to apply related knowledge as appropriate.

  • http://www.rma-consulting.com Jason Mesut

    Bravo! You have beaten me to it.

    I have just started asking the UI vs. UX question in interviews and it completely confuses most people.

    After a while getting people to map themselves to degrees to which they feel they are skilled at Interaction Design, Strategy, User Research and Information Architecture (see my presentations at http://www.betteruxportfolios.com for more on that) – i now often just ask the question: so, are you more UI or UX?, or where do you see yourself on a scale of UX or UI. It is kinda conceptually wrong to do this, but I have found it is a fascinating and insightful probe.

    In conjunction with looking through a candidate’s portfolio, I can see how their own perception of their abilities map to any evidence that might confirm this to a third party (ie, me).

    We really need to educate our clients and other disciplines though as it irks me everytime i hear someone saying ‘that’s some good UX’, when it’s actually good interaction design, or even just beautiful application of colour.

    The fact that so few people who might call themselves UX/UI/Interaction/Information + Designers/Consultants/Architects know the difference just demonstrates the worrying state of play in our industry.

  • http://www.rakemark.com/ Stafford

    I think that there are so many designers out there now who consider themselves experts in all things UI and UX. Like you say they are different.

  • http://www.hermeshandbagoutlet.com Hermes birkin

    Good post. Now i can tell the differences between UI AND UX. Thanks for the informative post.

  • Roger

    I’m grateful for the distinction. I’ve been a technical writer for 20 years, but my heart has always been in UI and UX. And, I’d like to get some formal training that might allow me to practice effectively in both areas.

    Would you be willing to recommend programs in the U.S. that offer both types of training?

    For instance, I’ve been looking at the CUA and CUX programs offered by Human Factors International. Does anyone have an opinion about this program?

  • Firefly

    Nice Article. I have seen a lot of people call themselves UX designers but the job description only focusing on UI design so I’m just wondering what’s the difference in job description/task when it comes to hiring a UI and a UX designer?

  • Nandini

    Thank you for a very informative article – helped me clarify what profiles I should be looking for and why.

  • Sneha Gomes

    Thanks for the article. Very informative and helpful to understand UI & UX.
    I believe you can help with a query that i have. I want to understand about interactive design / advertising. How different is it from UX?

    Appreciate your help. Thanks in advance :)

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