UI vs. UX Design: Similarities and Differences

December 16, 2020

In the world of web and app design, experts have weighed in on the differences between UI and UX. Some would argue that there’s no reason to differentiate because they are just the same. Many (and we subscribe to this) think that proper distinction is important, lest we muddy the definitions and conflate these two very different terms.

In this article, we walk you through the differences between UI and UX design. See how UI and UX design varies and get a solid grip about how and when they intersect.

So without further ado, let’s dive in!

WHAT IS UI? WHAT IS UX?

Right off the bat, we wanna make something clear: UI and UX are NOT interchangeable. Don’t for a second think that just because people often confuse and use these two interchangeably that these terms are similar. Because they’re not. Sure, they have similar qualities and most times, even overlap, but using one as a clear-cut definition of the other would be inaccurate. It would draw up an incomplete picture that you’d find more confusing than anything.

So to address the confusion, let’s first break down the two words:

UI or User Interface is everything you can see—buttons, images, text, entry fields, layout, animations, and transitions. It’s whatever you interact with on a website or an app. Basically, the whole (interface) enchilada. And UI designers do exactly what you think they do—they design what you see and interact with on a digital product. They’re graphic designers that ensure website and app elements would deliver great experiences to users. Words usually associated with UI include “intuitiveness”, “usability”, “interaction”, “seamlessness” and “features”.

UI designers are responsible for delivering a seamless and intuitive design that amplifies user experience. The elements of design (storyboards, process flows, as well as sitemaps) all fall under UI designer territory. They basically create the look and feel of the whole interface. Given everything that they have to think about, it’s really challenging to design a great UI, as poor interface leads to poor user experience—which, in an app or digital product, is a deal-breaker.

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UX, on the other hand, refers to User Experience. It’s defined as the overall experience that a person has when using a web or app, especially as it relates to how easy (or difficult) it is to use. Because of the word “design”, many people automatically think that UX designers concern themselves with graphics. Well, they do (and don’t); they do in the sense that, to ensure a good user experience, UX designers oversee the designs directly worked on by UI Designers. For easier understanding, we suggest looking at it this way—UX designers “design a user’s experience”. This includes understanding what a user’s demands are and then making sure that these are reflected in the final product.

Aside from overseeing the actual product development and interface design itself, you’ll see UX designers doing a lot of research work, which includes interviewing people and reading trends. They’re sitting in online communities, observing the surrounding conversation about user expectations and taking notes. They are generally involved in the actual development phase, which makes them part marketer, part project manager, and finally, part designer. They have a multifaceted role that involves connecting the user’s needs and wants to the overall goal of the product.

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(Here’s why online communities are important—especially during a pandemic.)

DIFFERENTIATING BETWEEN UI DESIGNERS AND UX DESIGNERS

Writing for the User Testing website, Craig Morrison, founder of UsabilityHour.com, made a bold opening remark: “UX Designer and UI Designer are two vastly different roles and a single person should not be hired to be responsible for both.” The two designers’ roles aren’t as clear-cut as we’d like them to be, which makes it even more confusing to differentiate. But helpful guides would say that while UI designers came before UX designers, the changing demands of the end-users made the latter an important prerequisite to any web or app design initiative. After all, wouldn’t you want to know what a user expects to see in a product they’re using (or would want to use)?

One of UX designer’s most important jobs is to unearth everything there is to know about user demands and expectations. Their job is to make sure that the digital product delivers and that optimal user experience is consistent—based on user demands, expectations and overall trends.

Because of this, UX designers may be expected to:

  1. conduct user test, interviews, field research and group discussions
  2. create user persona;
  3. observe trends and analytics; and
  4. layout and prototype.

Here at Amber Creative, our dedicated UX design team also takes on the users’ shoes by building and mapping out customer journeys to anticipate needs at each stage. They hypothesise the issues users may face towards the road to attaining the goals of the app or website and then design ideas to solve it.

UI designers on the other hand deal with the more technical aspect of design in that they build tools that users interact with. Given this, their responsibilities may include:

  1. interface layout and design;
  2. visual and interaction design; and
  3. creating visual guidelines that make it easier for users to determine action sequence

UI designers, in their barest form, ensure that the interface would come out visually appealing enough to attract users and successfully deliver its goal. Furthermore, it’s their goal to make sure that users would know exactly what they need to do based on visual cues they see on the product—and not scratch their heads in confusion when they land on it.

As a creative agency, Amber Creative also prides itself on user-centric, aesthetic designs marked by beautiful interfaces that users will find attractive. Our UI design team’s output help facilitate a user’s movement on the screens.

Here’s another helpful remark from Morrison you could chew on: “If a user doesn’t get the value you promised them, your UX has failed. If your user can’t use what you’ve built to get the value, then the UI has failed.”

Basically, UI is everything an end-user interacts with on a digital product or service, while UX is their experiential take-away. UI involves the design as well as website elements and UX is the feeling users get when using and viewing the digital product—whether they loved it or not, which may be based on a lot of things, including preferences as well as ease of use.

“UI is everything an end-user interacts with on a digital product or service, while UX is their experiential take-away.”

Do note that while this is the ideal set-up, responsibilities and roles may vary from company to company.

CAN A UI DESIGNER DO A UX DESIGNER'S JOB AND VICE VERSA?

We now go to one of the most pressing concerns people (especially business owners) have about these two designers: “Can I hire just one to do and oversee the job of both?”

Many companies hire one person to fill in both roles and fail to consider how different their responsibilities are. This may be because of budget constraints or some other challenging elements they’re facing. It could also be because they’re bent on cost-cutting. Although they overlap, there are still so many of these roles that only the other can execute. But for companies wanting to hire just one type of designer (at least for the moment), the question would be: “Who should we be hiring?”

The short answer would be the UX designer, and we’d like to iterate—at least for now. With everything they know about user behaviour and demands, UX designers can go as far as validate whether a digital product or service would be wanted by prospective users. They can gauge and validate a product’s desirability through first-hand research (interviews, focus group discussions, stakeholder research) and analysis of trends. You’d eventually have to hire a dedicated UI designer, whose expertise would enable you to reflect the website or app elements you desire to see displayed on the product you’re developing.

You may now also be wondering: when do these designers’ roles intersect? We’d argue that this happens throughout the entire product development phase, but just to give you a clearer picture, consider this simple example:

Say you’re designing a food delivery app. You’d need a UX designer to be on the lookout for the latest iconography trends so you'd get an idea about what icon types and styles would attract users at a given time (we say at a ‘given time’ because trends change). Next, you need your UI designer to sketch or create a blueprint of these icons before actual development starts, to get a feel of its actual look once embedded into the app itself. Then, you need them both to come together and discuss the design and action sequence. Your UI designer could recommend a set of iconography style based on his graphic design expertise, could decide on the colour scheme you’d have to use consistently for the app and so on. With user’s experience in mind, UX designers can shoot down a whole iconography design if, say, they think it’ll be hard to follow and decipher.

Constant communication and collaboration between the two designers (and their teams) would ensure a more efficient, intuitive and inviting end product.

(Interested to see what made it to the list of website design trends for 2021 and beyond? Check out our helpful list here.)

Here’s a little recap to help you internalise their differences better:

  1. UI designers manage everything a user may interact with to use a digital product or service (visual elements), including screens, touchscreens, keyboards, sounds, even lights. UI designers and specialists develop the style guides that must be followed consistently on the app or digital product.
  2. UX design evolved as a result of improvements to UI. The term User Experience was coined by cognitive scientist Don Norman while working at Apple. Norman defined User Experience as everything that “encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products.” With end-users in mind, UX designers work closely with UI designers, UX researchers, product & marketing teams in order to fully grasp the behaviour of their desired users and deliver services and digital experiences that are valuable to them.
  3. UX is concerned about purpose and functionality and is an important component that deals with the entire phase of the project and product—from ideation to actual delivery. It’s more social in that compared to the product-driven UI, UX includes market research to glean what clients and end-users need and want. Furthermore, UX designers include project management and analysis while UI designers lean towards the more artistic component of things as it relates to design.

Still feeling a tad bit lost? Message us and we’ll gladly help! Let us help you traverse the confounding ins and outs of UI and UX design!

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