What’s the difference between UI and UX?

6 min read David Renwick

UI and UX are two terms that are often used interchangeably and confused for one another, but what do they actually mean? And is there a crossover between them?

These two terms have only grown in use in recent years, thanks largely to the exploding technology sector. This is great news. For organizations, effectively harnessing UX and UI enables them to build products and services that people will actually want to use – and continue using. For users, they’ll have access to products designed for them. 

What is UX?

User experience (UX as it’s commonly called) refers to the experience that a person has with a product or service. 

We can determine whether a user experience is good or bad based on how easy (or difficult) it is for users to interact with the various elements of a product or service. Is the sign-up flow easy to use? Does the CTA button on the homepage encourage users to click? UX design exists to answer questions like these – and here’s how.

At the core of UX design is user research, which you can use to understand customer pain points and actually build products designed for the people using them. Typically, user research involves the use of a number of different research methods designed to answer specific questions. Card sorting, for example, can show you how people think the information on your website should be arranged.

Designer and information architect Peter Morville came up with the user experience honeycomb, which demonstrates the various components of UX design.

The UX honeycomb. Source.

Don Norman of Nielsen Norman Group defines UX as “[encompassing] all aspects of the end-users interaction with the company, its services, and its products”.

If this seems broad, that’s because it is. UX actually extends beyond just the digital products of an organization and can be used for areas like retail, customer service and more. In fact, there’s actually a growing movement to replace UX with customer experience (CX), as a way of encompassing all of these disparate elements.

What is UI?

User interface (UI), in the most stripped-back definition, is the interface by which a user and a computer system communicate with one another. This includes the touchscreen on your smartphone, the screen on your laptop, your mouse and keyboard and countless other mechanisms.

With this in mind, user interface design is focused on the elements that users will see on these interfaces, such as buttons, text and images. UI design is all about layout, look and feel. The objective of UI design is to visually guide users through an interface so they can complete their task. In a nutshell, you don’t want a user to think too hard about what they’re doing.

Shown here: The user interface of the Tesla Model S. Source.

UI has its origins in the 1980s, when Xerox developed the very first graphical user interface (GUI). Instead of needing to interact with a computer through a programming language, people could now use icons, menus and buttons. The rest, as they say, is history. Apple came along with the Macintosh computer in 1984 (bringing with it the first point and click mouse), and now we’re all carrying smartphones with touch screens that even a baby can operate.

Like UX, UI has grown significantly – going far beyond what you’ll see on a computer screen. Those involved in the field of UI design today will work as much on the interfaces of computer programs and apps as they will on the user interfaces of cars, wearable devices and technologies in the home. If current trends continue, UI design is likely to become an even bigger field in the years ahead.

What’s the difference between UX and UI?

UX and UI are both essential components of a product or service. You can’t have one without the other, and, as we’ve explored, neglecting one could have serious consequences for your product’s success.

The difference between UX and UI is that UX is focused on the experience of using something and UI is focused on the look and feel of the interface. 

Rahul Varshney, co-creator of Foster.fm, explains it this way: “User Experience (UX) and User Interface (UI) are some of the most confused and misused terms in our field. A UI without UX is like a painter slapping paint onto a canvas without thought; while UX without UI is like the frame of a sculpture with no paper mache on it. A great product experience starts with UX followed by UI. Both are essential for the product’s success”.

The difference between UX and UI is that UX is focused on the experience of using something and UI is focused on the look and feel of the interface. 

Or, if you’d prefer a statement from venerable Nielsen Norman Group: “It’s important to distinguish the total user experience from the UI, even though the UI is obviously an extremely important part of the design. As an example, consider a website with movie reviews. Even if the UI for finding a film is perfect, the UX will be poor for a user who wants information about a small independent release if the underlying database only contains movies from the major studios”.

With this in mind, let’s now take a look at the people behind UX and UI. What do the roles look like in these fields? And, more importantly, what do they involve?

UX and UI jobs guide

  • Visual designer: This role works with other design roles in the organization (brand, marketing, etc) to ensure designs match brand guidelines. Visual designers also work with UX designers to verify that designs meet accessibility and usability requirements.
  • UX strategist: At the core, a UX strategist should act as a champion of good UX. That is to say, work to ensure the principles of usability and human-centered design are well understood and utilized. They should also assume some of the responsibility of product-market fit, and work with product managers and the ‘business’ side of the organization to mesh business requirements with user requirements.
  • UX designer: The most common UX profession, UX designers should have a strong understanding of the principles of UX design as well as some research ability. Essentially a jack of all trades, the UX designer will float between all stages of the UX lifecycle, helping out with usability tests, putting together prototypes and working with other areas of the organization.
  • Service designer: The service designer looks at the entire end-to-end process and works with other designers, pulling them when required to liaise on visual designs and UI work. In a smaller organization, the responsibilities of this role will typically be absorbed by other roles, but eventually, there comes a time for the service designer. 

Wrap up

UX and UI as terms are only going to continue to grow, especially as technology and technology companies continue to proliferate across the globe. If you want to make sure that the user experience and user interfaces of your product or service are fit for the people using them, there’s no better place to start than with user research using powerful tools.