Throughout my career working as a UI/UX designer, it has been a challenge to explain my profession to non-tech people. My reasoning for this is two-fold. For one, it can be difficult to explain because there is a common misconception that software is only made by engineers, and so, the role of a designer is relegated to digital marketing and aesthetics.
The second reason is that the concept of UI/UX design is an ongoing conundrum. It’s not widely understood that this term is two roles intertwined, both with very different and equally important functions for building a successful product. This is generally because UX and UI design fall into the category of jobs that everyone has heard of—because they’ve entered the common lexicon—but that many people don’t fully understand. Another example of this is a Blockchain developer. You have probably heard of them, but could you explain what they do day-to-day?
What’s more significant is that because there is a gap in understanding the roles of each discipline, UI/UX design does not always get the attention it deserves in software projects. The temptation to “dive in and start coding” has led many teams astray. This oversight often results in a product that may have a great user interface design, but a poor user experience design, or vice versa. One without the other just isn’t going to be a functional, intuitive, and enjoyable product for the user.
So, what is the difference between UI and UX? Why are these differences significant? Should I be hiring a hybrid UI/UX designer, or should these be treated as separate roles? These are some of the questions I will unpack in an effort to bridge the gap and explain why the role of a UI/UX designer is so important for the success of a digital product.
The Difference Between UI and UX
While the terms are often used interchangeably, User Experience (UX) and User Interface (UI) design are distinct disciplines. UX functions to enhance user satisfaction by improving a product’s usability and accessibility. It strives to create an experience without any friction between the user-product relationship.
Comparatively, User Interface design focuses predominantly on the visual representation of the product and its interactions. This design works to create a seamless visual experience for the user.
To use a real-world example, imagine all the different types of doors that exist on buildings, specifically their handles. Also, keep in mind all the times you’ve accidentally pushed a pull door, or vice-versa. Let’s consider this with respect to UI and UX:
- Good UI: Being able to intuitively tell whether you need to push or pull a door by looking at it
- Bad UI: It’s ambiguous whether a door should be pushed or pulled. Even worse: it’s ambiguous which side of the door you’re meant to interact with (think grocery store freezers).
- Good UX: Succeeding in opening the door upon first interaction
- Bad UX: Failing to open the door upon the first interaction, and experiencing an awkward moment as a result
A sign of UI and UX design working harmoniously is us going through our day successfully opening doors, without having to think about the doors themselves.
Relating this back to software, a product suffers if either of these aspects (the UX design, or the UI design) is sacrificed; both are required in order for the user to easily navigate and use the technology with ease.
What is User-Centered Design?
User-Centered Design is an interactive step-by-step process that places the end-user at the center of the product’s planning, designing, and development stages to identify all of a customer’s needs and create a successful user experience. In other words, it is the method, or process, by which we can engineer a good user experience. Some key principles of the UCSD process are:
- User focus
- Active user involvement
- The systems development should be both iterative and incremental
- Simple design representations
The idea behind this methodology is that designers and developers will increase their chance of identifying usability problems in time to do something about it and in turn, improve their chance of creating usable software.
What is UX Design?
User Experience design is a broad term, encompassing both traditional human-computer interaction (HCI) design and all aspects of a product or service perceived by users. However, it’s predominantly used in the digital sphere. User Experience, like UCD, refers to human-first design.
Rooted in psychology and cognitive behavior, this method of design focuses on understanding user behavior with consideration to the user’s feelings, frustrations, and reactions when using a product. It aims to create simple, seamless, and efficient interactions for users while also providing meaningful experiences.
It has taken the design community a long time to settle on the term “UX.” Over the years, I’ve seen some creative job titles like, “Experience Designers” and “Interaction Architects,” but ultimately, the roles behind these titles have the same end goal: To improve the customer-product relationship using in-depth research, analysis of user behavior, and implementation of creative design solutions. UX design centers on:
- Understanding the user
- Mapping out a logical journey for the user
- Ensuring optimal functionality for the user
- Implementing and testing
The Role of a UX Designer
UX has come into its own in the digital era because we can now measure a user’s every click, step, and interaction with a product or service. As a UX designer, I am always collecting data to help enhance the product by asking questions like:
- How are people using the product?
- What is the customer doing and feeling?
- Where are the friction points in the product?
- Can the user easily use the product?
- Does the product provide useful content?
The UX designer has a broad set of tools in place to understand the nuances of what the user needs in terms of service, interaction, and usability. These tools, which include interviews, analytics, journey maps, and empathy maps, are utilized to take the designer out of the picture and place the user at the center. By conducting in-depth research of the product’s users and target audience, the designer can better recognize the customer and gain a greater understanding of their relationship with the technology.
What is UI Design?
The origins of User Interface design trace back to the rise of the digital era in the mid-1960s, when Douglas Engelbert invented the first computer mouse. With his invention came the need for a new kind of design that could link the mouse’s user with the system it was interacting with. As a result, the role of the UI designer was born.
Today, the UI design role has evolved into designing user interfaces for machines and software such as computers, home appliances, as well as mobile and other electronic devices. Where UX focuses on research that aims to discover how to maximize the enjoyment of a product, UI is the transfer of this research into a visually pleasing and intuitive experience. Basically, the UX design is a blueprint that the UI designer refers to while building the design system for the product.
Let’s go back to the conversation where I try to explain my profession. Often, once I have explained UI, the response is: “So UI design makes a product look aesthetically pleasing,” and simply put, yes, that’s true. However, UI is not only focused on finding the right color or font size or designing something pleasing to the eye. User Interface design is multifaceted and challenging work; it has many branches (layout grids, interaction, design systems, and more) and has the responsibility of making the relationship between the customer and the product a reality. Ultimately, the goal of UI design is to ensure the user’s interaction with the product is a simple and efficient experience for accomplishing their goals. UI design centers on:
- Aesthetically pleasing look and feel
- Visual communication
- Creating an emotional connection with the user
The Role of a UI Designer
As a UI designer, I often create visual assets in the form of style guides and pattern libraries that will later become the design system of the product. This enables the team working on the project to have a uniform view of the design and a way to relate to the customer. Creating the design system is a time-consuming task but, ultimately, it’s one of the most important things to do in a project.
A UI designer has to consider every aspect of the design in order to answer questions like:
- If the user clicks a button, what will happen?
- Will they open a new window?
- Is there a modal?
- Or do they just get a notification that the interaction was successful?
The answers to these questions define the shape of a product and outline a user’s path while navigating through it. This leads to the creation of a specific style and standard set of behavior that will inform design decisions going forward. UI designers codify this in a “style guide” that gets shared with the development team to formalize a consistent visual pattern and set of functionality to be used across the application. From a user’s perspective, if a page to create one type of record behaves in a certain way, they’ll intuitively expect another page that creates a different type of record to follow the same patterns. UI designers help ensure that this is the case.
When UI/UX Become One
In the world of tech, we’re used to seeing these two roles mentioned together, either as a hybrid role in hiring or in the same bullet point on a job description. In a broad sense, and as I have discussed, there is a lot of overlap between the two disciplines that contribute to this. Ultimately they serve to create a successful product – one that is engaging to users and meets their needs. They are practices of design that share many of the same goals, responsibilities, and ways of thinking. At a high level, it seems only logical that they are combined into a hybrid role.
One can consider the combination of UI and UX roles is similar to that of the “full-stack developer,” who is responsible for both frontend and backend work. Although both “ends” of development involve coding, the tools, concerns, and approaches often differ. Organizations may choose to hire such hybrid or specialized roles based on their specific needs, workloads, and resources.
Now let’s take a look at the commonalities and the difference between UI and UX:
Now we begin to see the differences between the two, in addition to what they share in common. Given UX’s more analytical approach when compared to UI’s more aesthetical one, an argument can be made that an organization may benefit from separating them.
Should I Hire Hybrid Designers or Separate the Roles?
First, picture an individual who is artistically inclined and able to produce visually engaging and intuitive designs. Now imagine someone who can consider a problem from multiple angles and connect with users to architect a system that meets their requirements. Are you picturing the same person?
Although it’s possible to find talented individuals who are masters of both UI and UX, the analytical versus aesthetic left/right-brain split suggests this may be difficult. Chances are, individuals in a hybrid position will favor (and excel at) one discipline over the other, whereas both roles are essential to the creation of a successful product.
If your organization has enough work and resources to justify two hires, consider acquiring both a UI and UX designer or perhaps two-hybrid designers with complementary skill sets.
However, if dedicating two or more positions to these roles isn’t feasible, a hybrid UI/UX designer may be your best choice. You can also look for these skill sets among other roles – web and graphic designers may have a natural inclination towards UI design, while business analysts and quality assurance specialists are often able to suss out the nitty-gritty aspects of a problem that may have been overlooked.
Ultimately your organization will benefit most from specialists who are experts on their particular subject matter. Such roles are then complemented by a multidisciplinary team whose experience intersects with the many related fields of development and design. Once your team is trained to keep the user’s perspective in mind, the benefits will be reflected in your product.
The Future of UI/UX Design
It goes without saying that the tech sector is cutthroat. Being first to market can give a startup an edge, but as competitors come nipping at your heels, effective design is what determines success. No amount of VC funding and marketing can convince people to use a product they find frustrating or insufficient if there’s a better alternative out there. Enter the UI and UX designers.
As we look to the future, I think it’s reasonable to expect an increased demand for dedicated UI and UX experts. I also believe that design training will become more prominent across all software-related disciplines, and certifications equivalent to that of Scrum Master, but for UI/UX, will begin showing up on resumes across the industry. As organizations realize the importance of these roles, there will be plenty of work available for prospective designers.
We now know that User-Centered Design is necessary to build a successful product. UX designers help ensure that the product functions according to the user’s needs, while UI designers produce an experience that is both intuitive and aesthetically pleasing. A team that is adept in both these disciplines can add a layer of polish that gives your product an edge over its competition.
Although hybrid positions may be necessary during the growth phase of an organization, the ultimate goal should be a separation of the two roles. In addition to this, your entire team will benefit from thinking from a user-centric perspective, given the collaborative process that is design and development. Having dedicated design experts on staff will ensure key perspectives don’t get overlooked, and help impart on your team the core principles of successful design.