The difference between UX and UI—and why both matter

With so many buzzwords and fancy acronyms describing just about anything tech-related these days, it’s easy to see why terms like User Experience (UX) and User Interface (UI) are so often interchanged and misunderstood. And rightfully so . . . even within the UX community itself, there is ambiguity surrounding the proper use and context of each term.

But the truth is, there is nothing complicated about either one. Simply put, User Experience design is a practice, and a User Interface is one of the many outputs of the UX design process.

Let’s look at each one a little closer.

User Experience

A simple definition of User Experience can be summarized as:

The overall experience of a person using a product such as a website or computer application, especially in terms of how easy or pleasing it is to use.

Source: Google

You might say, “That sounds a bit too simple.” And you’d be correct; there’s more to it. Breaking it down further, there are generally six core disciplines that fall under the practice of User Experience design.

  1. User Research. Observing and understanding the people who currently use (or will be using) your product.
  2. Content Strategy. The process of planning, creating and managing digital content.
  3. Information Architecture. Organizing, structuring and labeling content in an effective and meaningful way.
  4. Interaction Design.* Designing engaging interfaces with logical and thought out behaviors and actions.
  5. Visual Design. Involves the use of imagery, color, shape, typography and form to enhance content and engage users.
  6. Usability Testing. Determining how easy to use something is by testing, then evaluating it with real users.

What makes for a good user experience?

There are a lot of factors that go into creating a good experience for your audience. If you’re principled in your approach and your process looks similar to the one listed above, then chances are good that you’ll be able to provide a good experience to your users.

By understanding who your users are and what they want (research), you can then anticipate and present the right information at the right time (content strategy). When information is particularly complex and involved—take Amazon.com for instance—it becomes even more crucial to structure and organize that content into meaningful bite-size chunks (information architecture) in which the user will navigate and move through the content (interaction design) to get to what they need. Adding a well-executed aesthetic layer (visual design) that’s appealing and resonates with your audience in terms of color, imagery, iconography and the like can go a long way. What happens once you’ve successfully done all this? You validate your work by recruiting people from your intended audience to test your product and give you their honest feedback (usability testing). Lastly, you iterate based on this feedback to refine and improve your designs.

User interface design

So what exactly is UI design and where does it fit into this picture? You may have noticed that our fourth discipline listed above (interaction design) has an asterisk next to it. This is where user interface design comes in.

Whatever type of digital project it is you’re creating—website, web app, mobile app, portal, landing page, email campaign—one thing is certain: a user will need a way to interact with it. Your product will consist of “things” a user will tap or click to elicit a desired action and achieve his or her goals. A good user interface will allow a user to reach those goals with as little thought or confusion as possible.

This is the project phase where the interaction designer maps out all of the elements, objects, buttons, words and labels, forms and behaviors associated with a digital product. Essentially they are building a system of interactions which allows users to engage directly with a product.

Let’s take a look at Wikipedia’s definition:

User interface design (UI) or user interface engineering is the design of user interfaces for machines and software, such as computers, home appliances, mobile devices and other electronic devices, with the focus on maximizing usability and the user experience.

Source: Wikipedia

One important thing to remember is that user interface design is not specific only to digital products such as websites and mobile apps. It can also apply to everyday things we interact with, like the touchpad on a microwave, an alarm clock, a tv remote, the thermostat in your house, and so on.

Why it matters

Good UX execution will enable users to reach their goals. And a good UI can emotionally connect the user, allowing him or her to see and touch and interact with your content and (hopefully) return expecting the same positive experience.

Delivering such an experience is our primary objective and as UX professionals, what we aim for on each and every project.

Author: Chris Klimek

Chris Klimek is a passionate and disciplined senior user experience designer specializing in visual and interaction design. His extensive background includes various creative roles in the branding and ad agency world. He joined The Nerdery's UX team in 2013 and brings his wealth of knowledge to each and every project, focusing on creating user-centered design and experiences that address business, brand and user requirements.

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