UI vs. UX Design: The Difference is in the Details

A detailed guide on key differences and similarities between user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) design.

User experience design or UX design
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

When developing a new car model, engineers ensure that the sleekly designed components also have functional utility. UX UI designers do the same, but for digital products. Professional UX designers create user experiences (UX) for digital products like mobile apps. UI designers design the technical details of the user interface (UI). Together, they align usability, functionality, and design into a memorable, curated experience for any digital product user in question.

User experience design and user interface design are crucial to the mechanics of modern digital products. As the prolific tech and design blogger, and former VP of product design at Facebook, Julie Zhuo poignantly explained, “data cannot solve problems. It can only help you identify and understand them. Design is the treatment…”. She convincingly suggests that design is the critical feature for any set of data’s effectiveness. Put another way, no matter what your digital product or app is meant to do. The design is what makes it work. But because developing and designing anything well takes time and a particular skill set, businesses often hire professional UX UI design agencies.

It’s a great option. But even if you go down this path, it is best to learn a thing or two yourself about design along the way. As you begin to work closely with a designer, or team (maybe you’ll even decide to onboard a designer to your firm or business), learning critical details about the design process is a business-savvy maneuver in today’s digital-dependent world.

UX Design Meeting
Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

An excellent first step in learning some user experience design process basics is to sift through the jargon. Like any industry, a particular word can carry a conceptual weight that not everyone is familiar with. By not understanding precise terms, confusion and poor results are far more likely even if you’ve outsourced your design needs to a design company and merely oversee the process.

This article will explain a crucial yet perpetually mixed-up design concept — the difference between UX and UI design. While often thought to be interchangeable terms, there are vital differences between the two. Let’s take a look at precisely what defines UX and UI design.

UX design is industry shorthand for user experience design. The term has recently become a fashionable buzzword. Unfortunately, it is widely misused and misunderstood. So let’s clarify a few things.

UX Design Process
UX Design Process — Photo by Amélie Mourichon on Unsplash

User experience (UX) refers to the entire experience a user has, from start to finish, when using any digital product like a mobile application. This includes what is typically associated with design, such as interface usability, color schemes, text placement, and image rendering — UX design goes further. It considers both the bigger picture and the detailed nuance of a website or application’s entire design structure. Instead of how a website interface looks, UX design considers how it operates. While this is undoubtedly a technical issue, it is also an emotional and psychological one.

Don Norman originally defined the term user experience, explains that UX design considers the experience a visitor, user, or consumer has holistically. On one level, this includes how the digital application matches or exceeds the needs and expectations of a target user. The way the design’s structure and functionality speak to those who use it and create any digital product experience is UX design’s essence. While technical aspects of computer-human interaction are essential, UX considers the meaning, psychology, and emotion that underpin the bigger picture.

At this point, UX design might sound pretty broad. But like anything else, a few details can help clarify a general description. Let’s break it down, shall we?

UX design is made up of different tasks, responsibilities, and skillsets. More and more frequently, general firms are specializing functions under the umbrella of UX design. While there’s usually an overlap between them, the two leading roles are designer and researcher.

Card Sorting in UX Design
Card Sorting in UX Design — Photo by UX Indonesia on Unsplash

A designer is the information architect of the UX design process. They develop in concrete terms the broader vision of what is being designed. Their defining skill is the ability to systematically develop visual content within the framework of a larger strategy. By bringing together creativity with critical thinking, the UX designer can create skeleton site structures and maintain an orientation towards the user’s needs the entire time. They are responsible for tasks like:

  • Designing prototypes
  • Developing wireframes
  • Structuring user journeys
  • Creating visuals
  • Human-product interaction

While this role requires limitless creativity mixed with visual-technical know-how (and for many, some front-end coding skills don’t hurt), this UX design stage also involves research. And lots of it. This is where the UX researcher comes in.

User Research — Journey Mapping
User Research — Journey Mapping — Photo by UX Indonesia on Unsplash

UX researchers have a much more narrow job description than UX designers. Instead of structuring the informational architecture, the researcher is more or less a knowledgeable guide for designers. The research market conditions and develop a critical understanding of the target audience and competition. They help ensure the proper use of analytics and data. Because UX design is dependent on incorporating psychology and emotion into the design structure, the researcher plays an essential role in providing the data and guiding principles needed to make UX design successful. Some of their tasks include:

  • Conducting surveys
  • Industry or market research
  • Qualitative usability tests
  • Writing reports and assessments

Some do not specialize in either research or design. Instead, they bring elements of both to the table. They are called generalists. They tend to synthesize the critical aspects of UX design in one skillset — the technical know-how of visual design with the social and psychological understandings of the field for which the design is developed. But as any good web design agency will tell you, UX design alone can’t build an excellent mobile app. That’s where UI comes in.

UI stands for the user interface. It is better understood as a distinct but interrelated component of user experience (UX). Essentially, UI is the way that human-machine interaction happens. It is the moment of contact between visitor and site or user and application. All technical visual aspects of the interface fall under the general rubric of UI.

UI Designer at Work
UI Designer at Work — Photo by Faizur Rehman on Unsplash

A user's micro-interaction while using a digital application relies on the UI. These particular interactions control functions that stitch together the overall technical dimension and usability of a site. When a user interacts directly with certain digital aspects, it is called a graphical user interface. It brings users directly in touch with active and inactive elements of the application. A user may come across a text section (inactive) and buttons (active) as they go through various areas.

This type of UI is undoubtedly the most common and universal type there is. Less popular, though growing, are voice-based interfaces. This interface type allows a user to skip over the human-machine interaction at the screen’s point. Anyone who has ever used Amazon Alexa should be familiar with the concept. However, it’s unlikely that voice-based interfaces will ever replace graphic-based ones.

But the thing is, UI is more than just a puzzle of technical pieces to put together. Creating a visually appealing and functional UI requires the insightful creativity of a designer. This is where UI design comes in. When a user interacts with an application user interface, visually bland functions can obscure or distract from even the most outstanding products or concepts. The visual component is critical as it is the basis of UI itself — it is what the user sees during their interaction. Not only that, but the multitude of possible interactions means that the magical touch of good UI design is needed to turn what are little thought of details into appealing, eye-pleasing functions. UI design combines the aesthetic elements that give the interface its overall feeling.

UI Design Process
UI Design Process — Photo by Tran Mau Tri Tam on Unsplash

We know that UI design is necessary, but how is it done and done well? A simple equation can summarize the key to good UI design:

smooth functionality + creative visualizations + consistent efficiency =

Enjoyable usability.

Let’s take a look at what these guiding elements mean in practice.

Smooth functionality refers to the interaction between components on the interface. UI design ensures that the moment of human interaction with the particular interface works. But beyond just working, the elements a designer creates should have self-explanatory functions. What makes these functions “smooth” is when the user’s learning curve is minimized as much as possible. A button leading to action should be an obvious function to the user as quickly as possible. When particular parts become less intuitive and develop a steeper learning curve, the overall operation is less smooth. One outstanding example of a type of web design considered to have smooth functionality is parallax scrolling.

Dashboard User Interface
Dashboard User Interface — Photo by Luke Chesser on Unsplash

Creative visualizations are the aesthetic essence of UI design. Every single detail on a given interface is touched by design in some way, shape, or form. Text, buttons, links, spacing, and every functional mechanism the user engages with must have a graphic representation, color scheme, and placement. UI designers are responsible for ensuring that these elements are creatively designed. Using color palettes that work together and cutting-edge visualizations can help turn the often overlooked aspects of a user interface into the pieces that make the whole thing work. Stylistic considerations such as minimalism may also play a role in the creative process.

Consistent efficiency is the more technical aspect of UI design, similar to smooth functionality. Essentially, the goal is to make any user who interacts with a given interface a great experience. The user interface pieces must be consistent in getting the user where they want to go. This means that users can intuitively and logically accomplish the particular goal they set out from start to finish. For example, if they’re going to buy something, not only should the button they need to click on be visually stunning, but it should also consistently bring them to the page they need. This mechanical aspect of UI helps users interact with a dedicated web page or application. It ensures they will return.

UI Designer’s desk
UI Designer’s desk — Photo by UX Store on Unsplash

All three create the ultimate goal of any UI design project — enjoyable usability. This means that the user interface accomplishes particular functional goals and leaves an impression on the user that they would gladly visit again. They got what they wanted, and the experience left them without stress or annoyance. Instead, it made their day better.

As you can see, UX and UI design are intimately related but maintain distinct features and responsibilities. So let’s conclude by making sure it’s clear precisely what distinguishes and connects the two.

UX design is concerned with the bigger picture. It structures the compelling relationship between the website or application and the user. UX is concerned with the overall experience from start to finish. Therefore, it incorporates data-driven understandings into a particular brand or product strategy’s structural and visual representations. UX considers human psychology and decision-making in their design process.

UI and UX designers work together
UI and UX designers — Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

UI design is concerned with aligning the user interface mechanics with the overall vision structured by UX. UI is better conceived as an integral yet distinct part of the more extensive UX design process. With a focus on visualization and aesthetics, UI design makes the interaction between user and machine a smooth process. UI designers make the conceptual, research-driven vision of the UX designer a technical reality. They do this creatively by incorporating design into the details that facilitate every micro-interaction on a particular interface.

Ultimately, UX and UI design are two parts of the more extensive design process. They are not the same thing but work closely and need each other to function. Communication between UX and UI designers is vital to actualize what the other is doing. From now on, these concepts should no longer register in your mind as hip industry slang but rather, foundational practices of the design itself.

– Thanks for reading!