The Difference Between UI and UXby Shawn Borsky on 15th August 2011 with 15 CommentsIn today’s creative and technical environment, the terms “UI” (UserInterface) and “UX” (User Experience) are being used more than ever.Overall, these terms are referring to specialties and ideas that have beenaround for years prior to the introduction of the abbreviatedterminology.But the problem with these new abbreviations is more than just nomenclature.Unfortunately, the terms are quickly becoming dangerous buzzwords: usingthese terms imprecisely and in often completely inappropriate situations is aconstant problem for a growing number of professionals, including: designers,job seekers, and product development specialists. Understanding the properseparation, relationship and usage of the terms is essential to both disciplines.UI != UXThe most common misconception that you will hear in the workplace, in client meetings andoften in job listings or job requirements is the inadvertent combination or interchange of theterms. In many cases, the incorrect expectation is that an interface designer by defaultunderstands 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 bebecause both abbreviations start with the letter “U”. More likely, it stems from the overlap of theskill-sets involved in both disciplines. They are certainly related areas, and in fact manydesigners are knowledgeable and competent in both.“UI refers to the aggregation of approaches and elements that allowthe user to interact with a system.”However, despite the overlap, both fields are substantially different in nature and – moreimportantly – in their overall objectives and scope. User interface is focused on the actualelements that interact with the user – basically, the physical and technical methods of input andoutput. UI refers to the aggregation of approaches and elements that allow the user to interactwith 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 morethan just the end result of user interface. Instead, I have always found it best to consider userexperience as the reactor or nucleus of a brand. A brand being, in essence, the sum of theexperiences that a person has with a company or organization. User experience is the goal. Notjust the goal of an interface, but of a product or interaction with an organization. When gooduser experience is achieved, every desirable or positive effect that one could possibly think offlows from it. UX is focused on success of the whole. In reality, the product is not the sum of itsparts; 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, humanmemory is astounding but it’s imperfect. Every detail contributes to the ingredients of a gooduser experience, but when it all comes down to it, the user will remember products in somewhatskewed way. UX contains a much bigger picture than UI does but it still relies on the smallestdetails to drive it. This understanding is the most powerful asset anyone can have in productdevelopment.UI is a ToolUser interface is one of the most powerful tools at our disposal in the quest for great userexperience. Why? Simply, the interface is the most tactile, visceral and visible method withwhich our users interact with us. UI is the front line. This is possibly the best explanation for whythe two terms are so often used interchangeably or combined into one.Incorrect Usage is DangerousCommunication is complex and can be confusing. The development of precise and specializedterminology facilities easier communication. But what happens when we are effectively notspeaking the same language?“Unthinkable amounts of time and money are spent to dance aroundthe incorrect focus and usage of these terms.”What if I said, “Use a screw” meaning a corkscrew metal fastener to an engineer assembling aproduct, 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 blowup in our face. However, the effect is no less powerful. Unthinkable amounts of time and moneyare spent to dance around the incorrect focus and usage of these terms. Eventually, wastingtime and money will put a company out of business or cause products to fail. Improperapplication of the concepts can be disastrous.Finding the Right DesignerSome of the most common usage failure for the UI and UX terms is where it matters most: joblistings and requirements. It is already difficult to locate excellent candidates for specialized jobssuch as interface design and user experience design. But it’s certainly more difficult to hire theright person for the job when the skill set and design focus are miscommunicated. It’s expensiveto hire a specialist, and it’s even more costly to hire one that cannot solve the problem you needsolved. More often than not, the job requirements and responsibilities are skewed toward the UIdesigner job description but come loaded with the responsibility and expectation of a UXdesigner.Responsibility For the ProblemWhether a UI or UX designer, there is still the element of design. Design is a solution to aproblem. When roles are clearly defined and universally understood, it’s much easier to attack aproblem, propose a solution and execute on it. In the case of UI and UX, the problem normallyapplies to situations where the responsibility for the interface and the experience is assigned toone 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 designermay have the ability to create interactive designs, icons, colors, text, and affect a number ofother elements that solve problems dealing with direct interactions to the user. Those elementsare fantastic tools to affect user experience but they are only part of the equation. The userexperience is influenced by a multitude of things such as marketing copy, speed, functionalperformance, 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 thetools and ability to problem solve.”
It isn’t fair or practical to tell the UI designer that they are responsible for all these things andmore. It isn’t that user experience cannot be designed. If the situation were reversed for a UXdesigner it would be equally difficult. In order for a designer to rightly take ownership of the UXproblem, they must be enabled to recommend and effect changes, implementations anddecisions that control the experience. The flawed understanding is about designer focus andscope. It is not that one designer cannot handle both areas. It is about the tools and ability toproblem solve. Effectively, a builder without any tools is just as powerless to build as a personwith no skill or knowledge.ConclusionThe 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 staggeringramifications.From hiring the right person for the job to simply understanding what is required to approach theproblem, proper knowledge of the UI and UX terminology is a simple way to facilitate bettercommunication, better problem solving, better design and better user experience.