Interaction Design Vs. UX, UI & Visual Design: What’s The Difference?

Over the last decade, the fields of UX, UI and Interaction Design have exploded and salaries have increased dramatically, along with demand for these skills. The design of an app or website has become just as important as the functionality, which is great news for both users and designers! And with the average salary for UX designers in the US hovering around $90k per year, it is a highly lucrative field.

But understanding the various facets of design and all the acronyms that come with it can be daunting. IxD? IA? UX? What does it all mean?! And, most importantly, which one should I be focusing on? In this post, I’ll go into depth on the differences between these fields so that you can have a solid understanding of what each of them entails and be as informed as possible when deciding which to focus on. If you want to jump to the definition of one particular field, simply select it from the list below.

  1. What is UI design?
  2. What is interaction design?
  3. What is information architecture?
  4. What is visual design?
  5. What is UX design?
  6. What is UX research?

UX Design: An Umbrella Term

The first step to understanding the differences between these fields is realizing that they all live under one umbrella term: User Experience Design (UX).

ui ux disciplines x 1133 1600xSource: Fast Company

If you think about it, this actually makes a lot of sense. Basically, anything that is part of how the user experiences the software – from the buttons they press to the text they input – is naturally part of the user experience. It’s that simple!

Now that you understand the term UX, we can begin to drill down to the specific fields within this umbrella term and define them. This is where things get a bit more complicated. If you examine the graphic above, you’ll see that there are actually many different subsets of UX Design. For the purpose of this article, we’ll focus on the ones that usually make their way into job descriptions and titles.

1. What Is UI Design?

This field focuses specifically on the visual side of the software. The UI Designer is responsible for creating the visual language and identity of an app or program. Things like colors, spacing, font styles and hierarchy, button styles, and other aspects of the design are all part of the user interface and therefore fall under the domain of the UI Designer.

2. What Is Interaction Design?

Interaction design focuses on how a user interacts with specific elements of the software. Interaction Designers answer questions like what happens when a user clicks a button, or when a mobile app transitions between pages. They focus on things like animations, loading indicators and page transitions.

3. What Is Information Architecture?

The Information Architect specializes in the organization of information. This could be in the form of a website, an online community or a search system. Information Architects support the usability of the website by making sure information is properly organized and accessible to the user. They have their own tools and methods at their disposal, such as sitemaps and card sorting.

4. What Is Visual Design?

This field is similar to Graphic Design, except it’s less about designing ads, banners and other forms of media and more focused on designing for software. The Visual Designer is responsible for things like illustrations, graphics, and complex icon design. Depending on the needs of the team and the product you’re working on, a Visual Designer may not be needed. They are most common in video game design, where interfaces are often very visual and skeuomorphic.

5. What Is UX Design?

Even though UX Design is an umbrella term, it still makes its way into job listings and job titles. However, the job’s duties are pretty specific. As a UX Designer, you usually spend your time constructing flowcharts, wireframes and conducting user research to decide which features should be created and how the software should function. That being said, user research is sometimes split into its own field.

6. What Is UX Research?

Not all teams require a UX Researcher, as this task can often fall on the UX Designer. However, for applications where the user experience is particularly important, it can be extremely helpful to have a person dedicated to understanding the needs and desires of the users. UX Researchers spend most of their time talking to users, interviewing them and watching them use software as well as prototypes. This is called usability testing.

You may have noticed that each of these fields is different, yet they sound rather similar and intertwined. It’s certainly true that there’s a lot of cross-pollination in these fields. As a UI Designer, you may well be required to design interactions or create wireframes and user flows. Your exact job function depends on your role in your team and the team’s needs, and every team is different. For this reason, it’s important to understand what your role will be before taking on a new gig.

What Do Different Design Job Titles Actually Mean?

It can be tough to determine exactly what the responsibilities are from a job title or description alone. Job listing websites are full of titles like “UI/UX Designer” or the even more general “Designer”. Part of the trick to finding the right job is to learn how to decipher these generalized job listings so that you can understand what the specific job entails.

If you see a listing for a “UX/UI Designer”, it can potentially mean a few things:

  1. The company is a small startup or has a limited budget, so they’re looking for someone who can wear many hats. One day you might be designing icons, the next day you’ll be drafting wireframes and interviewing users. Naturally, positions like this require a bit more understanding of UX Design as a whole.

  2. The listing is for a large and established company that hasn’t put much thought into the design of their product, until now. So, they’re looking to hire a designer, but might not know exactly what it is they need. The key here is to understand the company as well as possible. Head over to Crunchbase or AngelList and see if the company is listed there so that you can learn more about them. How big is the company? Do they have a design team? Have they recently raised funding? These questions will help you understand where the company is coming from and what their needs might be. It’ll also give you more fuel for your interview since you’ll know the company’s specifics.

  3. The position was posted by a recruiter who has limited technical knowledge and doesn’t understand the specifics of the position or of the subsets of UX Design. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It just means you have to work on getting past the recruiter so that you can chat with whoever will be your manager on your team and better understand the requirements of the position.

In any of these cases, it’s really important to study the job listing and requirements. The things listed at the top are usually the most important. Pay attention to phrases like “Nice to have” or “… is preferred”. This means that those skills are optional. So if they say “JavaScript Experience Preferred”, don’t worry! You probably won’t be expected to code a functioning JavaScript app. The general thinking there is “the more skills the better”, so a lot of skills that aren’t exactly necessary end up creeping their way into job descriptions.

Of course, as you make your way through the interview process, ask as many questions as possible so that you can understand your exact responsibilities.

Why Specialization In Design Is King

Now that you have a solid understanding of the difference between the various design positions and what they entail, is it important to know both UX and UI in order to get a job? Or should you specialize in one design field?

It used to be okay to be just a “designer”. Being a Jack or Jane-of-all-trades meant you could handle any requirements that were thrown at you. Of course, this made it hard to focus on any one aspect of design, but design wasn’t always as important as it is today. In fact, being an all-rounder can potentially diminish your chances of finding a job! Over the last decade or so, the design of an app has become a key component in whether or not it is adopted by users. If two separate apps offer the same functionality, the more beautiful of the two will likely win out.

One of the main catalysts for this new focus on form, and not just function, was the release of the iPhone in 2007. When the iPhone came onto the scene, it was the most well-designed smartphone – and arguably the most well-designed consumer device – on the market. The user experience of the phone is what gave it center stage. Its clean interface and touchability made it a drastic improvement over previous smartphones and enabled futuristic touch interactions that had never been seen before.

Other products began scrambling to keep up as consumers developed a taste for well designed products.

This design mentality spilled over into many different arenas like web design, operating systems, car entertainment systems, television sets and even home climate control, just to name a few. Fast forward to today and UI and UX design have become very lucrative and in-demand fields! Products have also become better designed in general, which is great for the consumer.

Because of this new focus on the UI and UX of software design, specialization has become extremely important. Companies have realized that it’s much better to have multiple people focusing on their specific fields of design rather than just one UI / UX designer who does everything.

We already discussed job titles and descriptions and how to decipher them. While you’ll still see generalized titles like UI / UX Designer, job titles are becoming more focused. There are now many more job titles focused on a subset of UX, such as Interaction Design, UI Design, or Motion Design.

Specialization is great and can really help you future proof yourself as demand for specialized designers grows. That being said, it’s important to have at least a basic understanding of other aspects of design. That’s why in our UI Design Course here at CareerFoundry, we make sure to teach UX design principles and other subsets of design, like animation and sound design, instead of focusing only on UI Design. This way, you can speak the language of other team members. Think about it. If you’re hired as a UI Designer, you want to be able to have a discussion with the UX Researcher without all the terms flying over your head, right?

So Which Design Field Should I Choose?

With all the various design fields we’ve discussed, it can be easy to feel a bit overwhelmed. How do you decide which field to focus on?!

Your choice should depend on your own personal interests. Do you consider yourself an artist? Do you enjoy drawing or painting? Yes? Then Graphic Design or Visual Design might be the right field for you. Or maybe you’re not too handy with a pencil, but you do enjoy both the visual and analytical side of design. If so, I’d recommend UI Design. Or maybe the visual side of design scares you and you’re more comfortable working with the data behind the design. UX Design or User Research could be your cup of tea.

Whatever field you choose, try to focus on learning everything you can and really honing in on those skills. Of course, as you’re learning, try your best to pick up on the other aspects of design. Don’t neglect them just because you’re not as interested. Remember, specialization might be king, but it’s extremely helpful to be able to speak the language of other members of your team. It could mean the difference between getting or not getting the job.

Closing Words

Design skills are in huge demand right now and have become as important as the actual functionality of an app. This means that salaries and the number of positions for designers are rapidly increasing. The best way to capitalize on this demand is to focus on one aspect of design that you enjoy and can become an expert in, but to also make sure you have at least a basic understanding of other aspects. This will make you much more marketable as a designer and drastically increase your odds of finding a career you love.

Understanding the differences between the various design fields is the first step to deciding which you should focus on. Hopefully you now have a much clearer understanding of UX Design and the subsets of design that fall under this umbrella.

What You Should Do Now

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  2. Become a qualified UX designer in 5-10 months—complete with a job guarantee.

  3. Talk to a program advisor to discuss career change and find out if UX is right for you.

  4. Learn about our graduates, see their portfolio projects, and find out where they’re at now.