We’ve all overheard conversations, walking down hip streets of the world’s tech capitals, discussions about the great ‘UX’ of a product, or the poor ‘UI’ of a website. Is it a secret language you will never be privy to? Are these people just using slang to look cool?
Scroll to the middle of the post to watch a video of me speaking about this article, and giving you some extra info on what being a UX or UI Designer really means – and which of the two fields would suit you best.
The Acronyms Unveiled
The people you have eavesdropped on are actually discussing two professions that despite having been around for decades, and in theory for centuries, have been defined by the tech industry as UX and UI Design.
UX Design refers to the term User Experience Design, while UI Design stands for User Interface Design. Both elements are crucial to a product and work closely together. But despite their professional relationship, the roles themselves are quite different, referring to very different parts of the process and the design discipline. Where UX Design is a more analytical and technical field, UI Design is closer to what we refer to as graphic design, though the responsibilities are somewhat more complex.
There is an analogy I like to use in describing the different parts of a (digital) product:
If you imagine a product as the human body, the bones represent the code which give it structure. The organs represent the UX design: measuring and optimizing against input for supporting life functions. And UI design represents the cosmetics of the body–its presentation, its senses and reactions.
But don’t worry if you’re still confused! You’re not the only one!
As Rahul Varshney, co-creator of Foster.fm puts it:
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 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.
Below I break down the history, debate and definition around each term in detail. But if you don’t care for them – jump to the end of each section for a simplified description. And make sure you don’t miss the professional stats below it.
What is User Experience Design?
User experience design is a human-first way of designing products.
As is found on Wikipedia:
- User experience design (UXD or UED) is the process of enhancing customer satisfaction and loyalty by improving the usability, ease of use, and pleasure provided in the interaction between the customer and the product.
Clear, right? Well you might note immediately that despite what I implied in the introduction, the definition has no reference to tech, no mention of digital, and is vague at best. But like all professions, it’s impossible to distill the process from just a few words.
Some confusion in the definition of the term itself is due to its youth. Don Norman, a cognitive scientist and co-founder of the Nielsen Norman Group Design Consultancy, is credited with inventing the term in the late 1990’s declaring that “User experience encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products.”
This implies that regardless of its medium, UX Design encompasses any and all interactions between a potential or active customer and a company. As a scientific process it could be applied to anything; street lamps, cars, Ikea shelving and so on. However, despite being a scientific term, its use since inception has been almost entirely within digital fields; one arguable reason for this being that the industry started blowing up around the time of the term’s invention. Another arguable reason being that it was just a fancy way of rewording a practice that has already existed for hundreds of years known as “Market Research”; and boy do designers love fancy.
But don’t let me confuse you, User Experience Design is not a market research job.
Though it does utilize many of the same techniques to achieve a complex end goal: The structure, analysis and optimization of a customer’s experience with a company and its products.
If you’ve never seen User Experience work in practice, never even used the term at work, it’s still difficult to imagine what User Experience Designers actually do. At CareerFoundry we’ve developed a UX course that focuses on the process which I will use to illustrate the profession.
Here is a cliffnotes example of a UX Designer’s responsibilities as laid out by our course. It is targeted at the development of digital products, but the theory and process can be applied to anything:
Strategy and Content:
- Competitor Analysis
- Customer Analysis
- Product Structure/Strategy
- Content Development
Wireframing and Prototyping:
- Development Planning
Execution and Analytics
- Coordination with UI Designer(s)
- Coordination with Developer(s)
- Tracking Goals and Integration
- Analysis and Iteration
So part-marketer, part-designer, part-project manager; the UX role is complex, challenging and multi-faceted. You see that iteration of the product, as connected to analysis or testing is indeed mentioned twice, but in reality you would put it in between every other item on the list. Ultimately, the aim is to connect business goals to user’s needs through a process of testing and refinement toward that which satisfies both sides of the relationship.
So in conclusion:
- User Experience Design is the process of development and improvement of quality interaction between a user and all facets of a company.
- User Experience Design is responsible for being hands on with the process of research, testing, development, content, and prototyping to test for quality results.
- User Experience Design is in theory a non-digital (cognitive science) practice, but used and defined predominantly by digital industries.
The lesson to be learned here, is that if you’re interested in sociology, in cognitive science, in people and in great products, User Experience is a good place to be; but if you understand those principles and are more visually inclined, you might look at its brother-in-arms: User Interface Design.
Want to know more about how to build a career in UI or UX design? Check out this great step-by-step guide by senior UI designer and course writer Eric Bieller, and this analysis of career paths in UX design by Terri Rodriguez-Hong, a former CareerFoundry student who now works at Visa as a UX designer.
What is UI Design?
Despite it being an older and more practiced field, the question of “What is user interface design?” is difficult to answer because of its broad variety of misinterpretations. While User Experience is a conglomeration of tasks focused on the optimization of a product for effective and enjoyable use, User Interface Design is its complement; the look and feel, the presentation and interactivity of a product. But like UX, it is easily and often confused by the industries that employ UI designers – to the extent that different job posts will often refer to the profession as completely different things.
If you look at job posts for User Interface Design, you will mostly find interpretations of the profession that are akin to graphic design. Sometimes extending also to branding design, and even front end development.
If you look at expert definitions of User Interface Design, you will mostly find descriptions that are in part identical to User Experience Design – even referring to the same structural techniques.
So which one is right? The sad answer is: Neither.
But both are close in some ways. Like User Experience Design, User Interface Design is a multi-faceted and challenging role. It is responsible for the transference of a product’s development, research, content and layout into an attractive, guiding and responsive experience for users. It is also a field that, unlike UX, is a strictly digital profession, as per its dictionary definition:
The means by which the user and a computer system interact, in particular the use of input devices and software.
We explain in much greater detail what the definition and role of UI Design is and teach you the skills required to become a UI designer in the CareerFoundry UI Design Course. This includes its relationship to brand, graphic/visual, and front-end design.
Regardless of whether you choose UX design or UI design, it’s important to understand how the other one works and, crucially, how to work with them.
Let’s have a quick look at the UI designer’s responsibilities:
Look and Feel:
- Customer Analysis
- Design Research
- Branding and Graphic Development
- User Guides/Storyline
Responsiveness and Interactivity:
- UI Prototyping
- Interactivity and Animation
- Adaptation to All Device Screen Sizes
- Implementation with Developer
As a visual and interactive designer, the UI role is crucial to any digital interface and for customers a key element to trusting a brand. While the brand itself is never solely the responsibility of the UI designer, its translation to the product is.
You’ll also note the final point which states a responsibility for “implementation” of the design with a developer. While this is generally how UI jobs have worked in the past, you should be aware that the lines are blurring, as the term “Web Designer” (essentially a UI designer who can code) is being replaced by expertise of User Interface Designers. While UX has no need for coding, UI is a role that, as time progresses, will rely on it as part of building interactive interfaces.
So in conclusion:
- User Interface Design is responsible for the transference of a brand’s strengths and visual assets to a product’s interface as to best enhance the user’s experience.
- User Interface Design is a process of visually guiding the user through a product’s interface via interactive elements and across all sizes/platforms.
- User Interface Design is a digital field, which includes responsibility for cooperation and work with developers or code.
Or in analogical terms, UI design produces a product’ skin – a product’s visual/graphic presentation. It’s responsible for the product’s senses – its reactivity and interactivity in response to a user’s input. And its gestures – a product’s guides, hints, and directives that visually leads users through their experience.
Is UI Design More Important Than UX Design?
If you’ve read the above paragraphs you already know the answer. But in case you’re unsure, allow me to quote designer and expert Helga Moreno, who put it rather eloquently in her article The Gap Between UX And UI Design:
“Something that looks great but is difficult to use is exemplary of great UI and poor UX. While Something very usable that looks terrible is exemplary of great UX and poor UI.”
So you see, they are both crucial, and while there are millions of examples of great products with one and not the other, imagine how much more successful they might have been when strong in both fields.
And let’s face it, both roles are still confused, misinterpreted, and falsely sought after. So if you’re looking to get into these fields, it’s not a matter of which is more important, but, based on the descriptions above, which is more attractive to you.
Which Profession Is Better Paid?
Salaries are of course dictated by many factors, though primarily:
- Project/product type
On average you’ll find that UI and UX jobs have similar salary ranges across startups and minor tech industries. You’ll find however that in tech industries outside the web and mobile fields (e.g. car companies, medical equipment manufacturers, etc) there are more and richer opportunities for UI designers, as the field is not only more established but has a more direct, business-driven application.
Pulling upon averages however, it is possible to find both User Experience and User Interface jobs across the following range of value in central Europe.
- Junior Level Salary €28k - €33k
- Mid Level Salary €38k - €45k
- Senior Level Salary €50k - €80k
- Junior Freelancer €30 - €50
- Mid Level Freelancer €50 - €75
- Senior Level Consultant €75 - €100
*Numbers are based on salary data from Germany and central Europe.
To explore salaries in your area, check out these breakdowns of your earning potential as a UX designer and as a UI designer, and I recommend also taking a look at self-reported salaries on Glassdoor.
UX vs UI - Which Profession Is Right for You?
If you’re wondering whether you’d be a better fit for UX or UI design, check out my video below. I touch on the attributes that will predispose you to working successfully in each area.
And if you want to delve even deeper into the common traits of a UX designer, I recommend this article on what makes for a good fit for a career in UX, and this free tutorial on the skills you’ll need to succeed.
How Do I Learn These Skills?
While there are collegiate institutions who have Interactive Design and Visual Design programs, there are very few official ways to learn either UI or UX Design skills as applied to working within tech startups, or even larger corporates.
If you live in a major metropolitan area, you may be lucky to have access to a variety of bootcamp or class-style programs, such as General Assembly, or localized programs hosted by Google and other tech giants.
Online and with flexibility, you’ll find an infinite range of free content and courses for both skills. I highly recommend checking the outline and content of every course to see if what is being taught matches the definitions laid out in this article; but if structured correctly the options found on platforms like udacity, udemy, tuts+ can serve as a good introduction to the field.
For more specialized and personal education, the options are somewhat limited. In fact, at the time of writing, CareerFoundry’s mentored UX Design Course is the only truly UX dedicated mentor program, bloc.io’s being a mixed UI course.
If your interest is in learning UI design online, we obviously recommend our own mentored UI Design course, curated by long-time UI designer Eric Bieller.
Why Did I Write This Article?
I would like to quickly articulate the motivations behind this post. Firstly, there is seemingly a clear need for more articles of this type as I find few experts bothering to publicly define the differences of UX and UI design. As I’ve mentioned time and time again, the fields are confused, and unnecessarily so. My hope is that, whether beginner or expert, you can take something away from this article and share it with others who are as confused as the hiring managers writing the job posts.
Secondly, if you are interested in learning either or both of these disciplines, I hope to have made their definitions clear enough for you to better decide which to start with, or which may be inherently more attractive to you as a future profession.
Lastly, I feel it important to stimulate conversation. I am hoping that some of you lovely readers disagree with me and that you will voice it publicly in the comments. If our industry is confused, it is our job to unconfuse it, and the more passionate professionals that step up and contribute to the definition, the better.
What You Should Do Now
- If you’d like a step-by-step intro to find out if UX design is right for you - sign up here for our free 7-day UX short course.
- If you are interested in becoming a UX Designer check out our UX design course (you'll learn the essential skills employers need).
- If you’d like to speak to an expert Career Advisor for free about how you can really get a new job in tech - connect with us here.
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