UX and UI are not the same thing.
In brief: UX stands for ‘user experience’ and it relates to how a user feels whenever they interact with a product or service. UI stands for ‘user interface’ and it specifically refers to the touchpoints a person uses to engage with a digital product.
What does that mean exactly? Keep reading to demystify UX vs. UI.
UX vs. UI in a nutshell
The easiest way to distinguish between UX and UI design is to think about what they each stand for.
UX stands for ‘user experience’. The user experience relates to how a user feels whenever they interact with a product or service. It’s not a physical, tangible thing—it’s the ease and user-friendliness of the interaction as a whole.
UI stands for ‘user interface’. The user interface relates specifically to the screens, buttons and other visual and interactive features a person uses to interact with a digital product, such as a website or app.
UX design is the careful planning and creation of the user experience and everything it entails. It focuses first and foremost on creating a product or service that solves a particular user problem, making sure the proposed solution is easy and enjoyable to use.
UI design is the process of designing how digital interfaces look and behave. It covers all the visual and interactive properties of websites, software and apps—from colours and typography to buttons, scroll functions, animations and more.
That’s a high-level distinction between the two. Now let’s consider both UX and UI design in more detail.
What is UX design?
UX design is all about solving user problems and creating relevant, easy, enjoyable and accessible experiences. It’s a vast discipline that encompasses every aspect of a product or service that the user comes into contact with—and considers how all of these aspects fit together to make a user-friendly whole.
Good UX vs. bad UX: An example
Let’s take the example of going to your local library to borrow a book. If all goes well, you’re in and out in five minutes. You scan your membership card to enter, you follow the very clear signage to find the section you’re looking for, you browse the alphabetically-organised shelves to locate your desired book, check it out using the self checkout machine and you’re on your way.
Now let’s imagine an alternative scenario. You arrive at the library and have to queue at the front desk to enter because there’s no option to scan your membership card. There’s only one librarian on duty and they’re already helping a customer, so you’ve no choice but to wait. Ten minutes later and you finally make it into the library, only to find that there’s no signposting for the various sections. You make your way back to the front desk to ask where the sci-fi section is. You eventually locate the right section, but the shelves are in chaos. There’s no system—you just have to browse through at random and hope for the best. Thirty minutes later and you still haven’t found your book. Frustrated, you leave and vow to never return to this library again.
The first library has been designed and built to ensure a positive user experience, while the second has not. The impact on the user is huge and it heavily influences how they feel about the service as a whole. The first library can expect happy customers who return time and time again, while the second can expect an ever-dwindling number of visitors. That’s the importance and value of UX.
UX design always considers the end users’ needs, with the goal of creating products and services that are easy and enjoyable to encounter. The UX design process encompasses understanding the target user through user research, defining the problem that needs to be solved, coming up with ideas for potential solutions, mapping out the layout of the product or service, considering all the possible actions and steps the user might take, running tests to ensure the experience is accessible and intuitive, and continually iterating on the finished product.
That’s UX design—so what about UI?
What is UI design?
UI design covers one specific aspect of the overall user experience: the look, feel and behaviour of digital user interfaces.
As we saw with our library example, UX design applies to literally anything that a person can encounter or experience. UI design, on the other hand, relates exclusively to digital screens and interfaces. That’s what a user interface is: the point of interaction between humans and computers.
The UI design process is also highly user-focused and the goal is always to create interfaces that are easy to use and allow the user to move seamlessly from point A to B. However, unlike UX which is broad and all-encompassing, UI concentrates on the design and layout of digital screens, as well as the individual elements they contain. This includes things like buttons, swipe and scroll motions, menus, typography, imagery, colours, animations and the transition from one screen to the next.
We expand on this definition in our complete introductory guide to UI design.
UX vs. UI design: The main differences between the two
Colman Walsh, CEO of The UX Design Institute, uses the analogy of building a hotel to explain the difference between UX and UI:
In the process of building a new hotel, the architect would consider the overall purpose and structure of the hotel, asking those all-important user-focused questions such as: What are we building? Why are we building it? Who are we building it for?
They would then map out the hotel structure and layout accordingly, paying special attention to the journey the guests will take to move through the various rooms.
With the architectural foundations in place, an interior designer would then step in to decorate and furnish it. They’d focus not only on making sure the hotel looks good and evokes a certain vibe; they’d also make sure the guests have all the functional elements they need to move around and use the hotel just as the architect intended—considering everything from doors and door handles, to towel rails and taps in the bathroom.
This is very similar to how UX and UI designers work differently but in harmony. The UX designer is the architect, considering the overall experience of a product, and the UI designer is the interiors expert responsible for the final look, feel and functionality of the product’s interface.
With that in mind, we can summarise the main differences between UX and UI as follows:
- UX is concerned with the overall experience and the impression it leaves on the user. Good UX and bad UX aren’t tangible things. Rather, they’re the result of an overall product or service being clear, intuitive and easy to use vs. confusing, clunky and frustrating. UI is concerned with one very specific aspect of the whole experience: the design of the interfaces a person uses to interact with a digital product.
- UX is heavily steeped in research, analysis and understanding user needs. UI is also user-focused but it’s primarily concerned with visual and interactive design. UI is certainly the more artistic discipline of the two, while UX is more about problem-solving.
- UX is a very broad term that covers any and all kinds of human experiences and interactions, such as going into a library to borrow a book, using an app or website to book flights or even going to the dentist. UI design only relates to digital products and experiences, as it is the design of user interfaces—the touchpoint between humans and computers.
UX designer job descriptions vs. UI designer job descriptions
Another great way to differentiate between UX and UI design is to consider how the job descriptions for UX and UI designers vary.
UX designer job descriptions
The UX designer job description typically includes the following tasks, responsibilities and requirements.
UX designer tasks and responsibilities:
- Dive deep into customer needs and user behaviours; conduct and analyse user research and usability tests to ensure all designs meet business and user requirements
- Create and evaluate user journeys based on data and insights
- Produce design deliverables to illustrate user experiences, including storyboards, user flows, wireframes and prototypes
- Collaborate with partner teams to get feedback, iterate and implement design solutions together
- Keep up to date with competitor products and industry trends
UX designer skills and requirements:
- Excellent problem-solving skills and an understanding of user experience and interaction design
- A relevant qualification in design or a design-related discipline (or equivalent professional experience)
- Proficiency in industry-standard UX design tools such as Figma, Sketch and Adobe XD
- Excellent communication and presentation skills; the ability to build relationships with different stakeholders
- A professional UX portfolio
UI designer job descriptions
Compared to UX designer job descriptions, the UI designer job description typically focuses more on visual and interactive design expertise.
UI designer tasks and responsibilities:
- Play an integral part in giving creative expression to the brand across multiple products and platforms
- Gather and evaluate user requirements in collaboration with UX designers, product managers and engineers
- Design graphic user interface components and elements
- Create original graphic designs (i.e. images and sketches)
- Build page navigation buttons and search fields
- Illustrate design ideas using storyboards, process flows and sitemaps
- Develop UI mock-ups and prototypes that clearly illustrate how sites will look and function
- Implement layout adjustments based on feedback
- Help to develop and maintain a UI style guide
UI designer skills and requirements:
- Knowledge of visual design principles such as typography and colour theory
- Understanding of interaction design and UX principles
- Excellent communication and storytelling abilities
- Demonstrated ability to work as part of a highly collaborative team
- A relevant qualification in graphic design, UI design, visual communication or another design-related discipline
- Excellent attention to detail
Learn more: What does a UI designer do?
UX vs. UI design: Which should you learn?
Both UX and UI are extremely valuable skills to master. They both play a critical role in the design and development of digital products and it is impossible to have one without the other.
If you’re looking to become a multiskilled designer who can handle the product design process from start to finish, you might want to learn both UX and UI. If you’re more interested in user research, problem-solving and product architecture, consider focusing on UX design. If you’re a visual person who wants to design the finer details and make sure digital products are both beautiful and user-friendly, you might be leaning more towards UI.
Whichever path you choose, you’ll find that your skills are in high demand and that a creative and rewarding career awaits you.