UI and UX are two very common design terms; however, these terms often get thrown around in the wrong context.

Meanwhile, traditional job titles such as “website designer” and “app designer” are far less common nowadays, despite being perfect descriptions of the design services that a designer might offer. What is this fascination with the word “UI” all about? And why do some designers call themselves “UI designers” or “UX/UI designers”?

Isn’t the UI a part of the UX?

Why has “UI” become such a buzzword?

UX vs. UI

We, as designers (and as human beings), are obsessed with how things look. We know that it’s “what’s on the inside that counts,” but we still parade ourselves in front of the mirror every morning, trying to look nice for the random strangers we’ll never see again.

UI design is no different. We want our user interfaces to be aesthetically pleasing, and whether we admit it or not, we like our work to be admired and validated. Since things that are visually appealing turn more heads, this can lead some designers to dedicate more time to how an interface looks, rather than how it works. The key difference between UI and UX is that the UI is how it looks, and the UX is how it works.

By definition from the Nielsen Norman Group, “‘User experience’ encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products.”

Calling yourself a UI designer is pretty much the same as saying, “I’m more focused on how it looks.” In reality, the user interface is only one contribution to the user experience. There are many other factors beyond the UI that contribute to the overall user experience.

To name a few:

  • Does the user flow help the user achieve their objective quickly?
  • Can any user, regardless of age or physical capability, access the UI?
  • Is the usability good enough that the user can use the website easily?
  • Are design decisions being driven by solid data and user research?
  • Is the application intuitive enough to guess what the user wants?

Visual design still matters. Colors still matter, branding still matters, and how the UI animates when the user interacts with it still matters, but when we begin making design decisions based on how something looks, we’re no longer designing for users.

In fact, we’re not even designing. We’re making art.

an image comparing ui vs. ux

User experience vs. user interface (Illustration by Shane Rounce)

As a rule, the UI is how you interact with a product (e.g., clicks, taps, and voice interactions) and the UX is the resulting opinion/emotion felt by the user (e.g., it’s fast/slow, intuitive/confusing, and/or makes the user feel happy/frustrated).

Why You Shouldn’t “Design for Likes”

Social media is addictive. Why it’s addictive is a whole other story—bottom line, it is. People share things on social media for “likes” because, in short, it activates the reward system in our brain. We seek validation from others in the form of likes and followers much as we seek sex or food—it feels nice, and as the feeling starts to fade, we quickly seek it again to fulfil our desires. The average person spends almost 2 hours per day on social media.

Enter Dribbble, or rather, what’s known as “the Dribbble effect.”

Dribbble started off as a “show and tell” website for designers, but it quickly became known as a way to show off design work for likes rather than constructive feedback. This led to designers uploading work specifically for likes, and this fad didn’t end there.

As with all addictions, designers started to find more ways to feed it, including making up fake clients and app concepts just to have something that Dribbblers could “like.”

What’s Wrong with That?

Design is about solving problems that users face. If we’re not designing with a user in mind, then there is no problem to be solved. If there is no problem, then we’re just visualizing UIs for the sake of it. Not only will we end up with something impractical, but designing for imaginary ideals won’t help us improve as a designer.

Let’s take a look at some design disasters on Dribbble.

Even though this first example doesn’t form a real design brief/client, and the over-the-top background somewhat takes away from the design itself, what makes this even more unrealistic is that the visual elements extend beyond the viewport, like a kind of “breaking the fourth” wall effect. While the design aims to be “pretty,” it’s not a design that works.

design trends vs. meaningful design

In this example, the design sacrifices meaning and value for impractical visuals.

designing for real users with real devices

In this example, the UI is designed for a device that doesn't even exist.

a 3d ui from the future

This example looks stunning as an art piece, but currently no device lets us view UIs in this way.

a beautifully presented website design

This example is much better, as it showcases a real, viable design without the bells and whistles.

Where Does This Obsession with Visual Design Come From?

Designing for likes is often derived from a love of a specific design trend that’s become mainstream; for example, Apple’s use of flat design and minimalism that effectively saw the end of skeuomorphism. While there is of course nothing wrong with either of those visual aesthetics, designing something purely to implement a trend borders on the job description of an artist, not a designer, and it certainly doesn’t encompass UX.

Instead, first and foremost, UX designers should be looking at how to improve user experiences, and if a visual design trend happens to fill that void, then, and only then should we use it.

As mentioned earlier, collecting “likes” activates the reward system in our brain. More accurately, rewards increase the level of dopamine in our body, and dopamine acts as a neurotransmitter, sending a message to the brain when we reward ourselves. The brain, hugely thankful, makes us feel good in return as reward for our actions.

This causes lazy “designers” to shy away from designing for users and instead implement trends that will result in a high number of likes. This causes misconceptions about what design really is, which causes clients to think the same. This is a huge disservice to the UX design industry and UX designer peers who want to design the best products.

UX Design Principles

It’s impossible to explain the many concepts of UX all at once, but here are the fundamental factors that contribute to an effective user experience, in a nutshell:

  • Speed
    • Is the app or website slow (or does it feel slow)?
    • Is the user required to click/scroll/interact more than necessary?
    • Are there too many distractions and/or decisions to make?
    • Is there friction that stops/delays the user from getting what they want?
  • Intuition
    • Is it obvious to the user what they have to do next?
    • Can we determine what the user wants and display content accordingly?
  • Accessibility
    • Can the user access the UI, regardless of their age or disability?
    • Have we thought about the many different types of color blindness?
  • Usability
    • On mobile devices, are the tap targets an appropriate size?
    • Are the targets easily accessible to thumbs?
    • Is the design responsive? Does it adapt to all devices?

20 usability heuristics

Susan Weinschenk and Dean Barker (Weinschenk and Barker 2000) researched usability guidelines and heuristics from many sources (including Nielsen's, Apple, and Microsoft) and generated this set of 20 Usability Heuristics to check against.

Visual Design Is Still Important

Visual design plays a huge role in user experience design, hence the reason why we shouldn’t compare UI to UX—UI is a part of the UX. Calling yourself a UI designer only brings attention to the more glamorous aspects of UX design while placing less regard on UX as a whole and how it can be used to meet business objectives.

Here are the UX design principles as listed above, only this time, we’ll mention how visual design factors into things:

  • Speed
    • Can the user quickly identify where they need to look and interact, using contrast, color, and spacing as visual cues?
    • Does the above-the-fold UI/content render immediately, explain what the user needs to do on said screen, and have a clear call to action?
  • Accessibility
    • Do the color choices create enough contrast?
    • Is the UI large enough for those with difficulty seeing?
  • Usability
    • Is there a visual hierarchy that illustrates the importance of each element?
    • Are we visually conveying trust and security when applicable?
    • Are we implementing micro-interactions that feel natural and clarify the action that’s being taken by the user?

It’s important to think of UI as a tool that can be used to improve UX, rather than a shiny coating that can make UX “look better.” Take Amazon for example: They make over a hundred billion dollars every year, and while their UI and checkout experience is obviously intuitive, it isn’t conventionally appealing in terms of visual aesthetics.

amazon's bland but effective ui design

Amazon earned $1.9 billion during the last three months of 2017, but you wouldn't have guessed it from their UI design.

UX/UI Design Should Be Driven by Data

UX design (which includes UI) should be driven by user research (tracking analytics, user interviews, customer surveys), usability testing, a lean UX workflow (that includes prototyping, internal feedback, and regular shipping), and anything else that offers data and insights into how users interact with the interface (or the business as a whole).

If an app or website isn’t performing to expected standards, these qualitative and quantitative user research methods can help UX designers make more effective design decisions, whether that’s a decision relating to the user flow or just the colors. It’s this data-driven approach to design that makes UI and UX one and the same thing.

Conclusion

There’s nothing wrong with being called a web designer or app designer, or even a voice app designer or wearables designer. It describes what you are, and clients will be able to grasp what you do more quickly. Clients don’t care if you have a trendy job title or how many likes a design has on Dribbble. All clients want to know is that you know how to solve user experiences effectively, taking into consideration the business objectives of the company and making design decisions driven by data rather than likes and trends.

On the other hand, there’s not much wrong with the term “UX designer” either—that is, if you consider yourself a designer that designs all types of interfaces. Above all, it’s important that as a designer you choose a job title you truly identify with.

Understanding the Basics

What is the difference between UI and UX?

UI is the interface that a user interacts with to achieve their goal, UX is the user’s overall experience of the product as they navigate and interact with it.

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Comments

Wayne O. Evans
Excellent article I found the contrast between UI and UX add to my understanding. thanks
Victor Manuel Corzo
great article ...
Jan
Some people are good at making things look good, others (like me) are good at making things work well. but not as good as the design-side. UX and UI are absolutely not the same thing. Some people are excellent UI designers but aren't as adept on the information architecture side of things, and some are the opposite.
Mike Moran
This article is funny to me as someone with enough years of experience to have seen the field turn into what is now referred to as UX/Ui Design, something I struggled to understand when I started looking for full time work again. I've always felt a great UX designer makes intuitive, simple interactions and can meld that with creative solutions that push the envelope of the platform's capabilities; some of the best I've worked with are often not visually inclined. A great UI designer needs to know all that as well as how to make it look perfect, if you don't understand UX I always say you're just painting pretty pictures. I've always worked within both fields, all I can say is it never hurts to have two heads on a project to ensure a good end product; but both have to be able to collaborate to reach a final solution, a good UI designer can gain insight and make positive changes to UX through their UI specific work.
mitch-baker
High five. I was taught design philosophy in college, but only because I was lucky enough to have had a professor who was passionate about problem-solving and the role design plays in society. I used to assume that's how ALL designers were trained, but have since discovered (over and over) how rare my experience was. Kyle McDowell: your point is valid, that "art is art", and of course exploration and freedom of expression are absolutely essential, and there's really no way to cleanly draw a line between art and design when there's so much in-between out there. But your verbal aggression works against your argument, from a design standpoint. Maybe, Daniel, calling someone's art a "design disaster" goes too far, but your larger point—which I greatly appreciate—is that this blurred line should be brought into focus, and I applaud your attempt(s*) to shed some light on the problem. Hopefully more actual designers will take up that torch with us. * - Sounds like you've written on this topic before, and I look forward to more!
Chris Allard
I think some confusion has arisen because UI has become conflated with visual/graphic design (a vast field in its own right that is also evolving). There can be a significant distinction between visual design and UX in some cases OR in other cases visual design can be a very important factor in the overall "UX" of a solution. Dribbble is, functionally speaking, a forum for presenting visual design and animation riffs, often taking app/web design as a point of reference. So while the article makes excellent points and is hugely constructive, it's at times like a critique of a guitar solo using the same criteria one would use to judge an entire album.
nicola dobiecka
Well written and clear articulation of the situation.
Art
I still find this as the best high level explanation: https://www.screencast.com/t/RNgGbzhjQz1l
photo_matt
Never call yourself a UX designer either. You CANNOT DESIGN a user experience. You can design workflows, patterns, and even ... wait for it ....UI's. The NN quote you use is correct, there is no 'design Then, you quote a picture about soup and a spoon, calling the first the UX. That picture is dead wrong. Soup isn't an experience. No matter how it is served, what ingredients it contains, which tools you deliver with it. For that matter, what is the bowl n the stupid analogy? UX is always 'created' by the USER. You can only TRY to INFLUENCE a user experience. The actual experience (Easy/hard, happy/frustrated, long/short, entertaining/getting work done) is only partially influenced by designers (AND developers; badly coded good design still results in bad UX!) And a gazillion other factors out of reach for a designer (bad internet, broken phone, noisy surroundings,.....). UX is the buzzword, not UI. UI was here before the 2008 crisis and Interaction Design was hard to sell so agencies' marketing thought up 'User Experience Design' and even people doing the work itself gobbled up the term like the soup in the picture. It's a mere container term that says nothing about what you do, really. Just stop trying to explain what someone is or does and how they call it. The "We're making art" line even sounds like a dismission of the work to something that is called 'art'. Art ALSO interacts with the 'user', not via buttons on a web site but really, the experiences of people reach way further beyond tappable pictures on hand held glass containers with chips inside. The navigation through an hospital is also designed, resulting in a UX. Can anyone who calls herself a User Experience designer design hospital routing? UX; something in the design field for people. Whatever you do, and however you call it, do it with others who are good at what they do to create the best possible work for the people you intended to create it for. Make work, not talk about it.
Bernd Burkert
According to this rationale, the database administrators should call themselves UX designers as well. Their work has an important impact on database response time and thus the users' experience. As we live in the age of the customer, businesses put the customer at the centre of their business decisions. Which makes every member of the board a UX designer? Sorry, this term/definition appears not too helpful to me, to understand what someone is doing. Can we please roll back to the understanding, that UI designers have the primary focus on how it looks (as in Photoshop) and UX designers have their primary focus on how it works (as in wireframes). At least this is, how we understand the job terminology here at KPS. Never call yourself something, that is not your primary role!
Diego De Monte
We feel attracted by visual but we stick with functional.
ux by qonita
I agree with the whole point of that article regarding the obsession with visual design and emphasizing the importance of usability and data, as well as the fact that design is about solving problems. Let’s start from here. Visual design is about solving visual problems, where we need to consider visual perception like Gestalt theory. UI design is about solving UI problems, where we need to consider usability. We also have product or service design, which is about solving product or service problems. We’re familiar with interior design, which is about solving interior problems. The design field has always been about solving problems even before “UX” was coined by Don Norman in 1990’s. It’s interesting how the author referred to Norman’s video but missed to hear what the explanation is about. It’s just “UX”, not “UX Design”, because we don’t design it. As he quoted, UX encompasses “all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products.” This is why asking UI designers to instead call themselves UX designer is like asking UI designers to be responsible for all of those. I wonder if he really meant that. His idea of a UX designer’s job is still about solving UI problems and the outcome of the work is still what people experience on the user interfaces. The author also equates "UI design” as “how it looks”, while that is actually visual design’s job! So, what is a UI? Note that Norman et al edited a book “User Centered System Design” (1986), where one of the chapters is about user interfaces. UI is not trivial! Note also a book “3D User Interfaces” (2005) by Doug Bowman, which was revised into 2nd edition (2017) to include usability in the age of consumer AR/VR applications. Do not undermine UI design and do not induce insecurity in UI designers. They’re fine and they have important problems to solve. Instead of asking them to call themselves UX designer, I’d rather have them more confident in their skills. They can be visual UI designer, auditory UI designer, 3D UI designer, voice UI designer, gesture-based UI designer, or such a unicorn in UI design (encompassing all types of interfaces with technology). They can also switch to product / service design, by asking business questions on what product/service needs to be initiated. It’s a big Design family out there, and we’d rather be collaborating instead of dismissing each other. Thanks!
Mike Donahue
Like the article, hate the headline. UI is NOT UX. UI is part of UX. UI contributes to the overall UX. There is a real need for dedicated UI designers. They should label themselves as such. There is a broader skill set required by someone labeling themselves as a UX Designer. Please don't make things worse by conflating the terms for those less familiar.
Hifi1
Exactly! Everyone involved with the product has an impact on the user experience. It's called design thinking and it should be across the enterprise.
Hifi1
UX: Designing the barn. UI: building the barn. Visual design: painting the barn.
Weronika | kreatywny.blog
Exactly, user experience is much broader term than user interface. Hence, it can be better to describe someone as a UI designer, since it gives a better idea of what the person is doing as opposed to the rather generic term "UX designer". Also, just because somebody describes themselves as a "UI designer" doesn't imply that the person is not thinking about the user and usability of the product.
Jônatas Do Vale Martins
Unfortunately, this article was a waste of time. But thankfully, it comments have rich information about this subject.
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