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UX vs UI: Understanding the difference between UX and UI

It's time to settle the debate once and for all. What's the difference between UX and UI?

RMIT Online
RMIT Online
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The difference between UX (User Experience) and UI (User Interface Design) is the difference between function and form. The way something looks versus the way something works. Rahul Varshney, founder of Foster.fm, puts it this way: “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 papier-mâché on it. A great product experience starts with UX followed by UI. Both are essential for the product’s success.”  

There’s a good chance that you’ve stumbled across UX and UI before. Onward Search Digital ranked ‘UX Designer’ as the second most in-demand job for 2019. And SEEK is projecting 12% growth in the UI field over the next five years, with salaries already benchmarking around AUD$90k.  

The reason for this growth is pretty simple: every website we visit, every app we navigate, every online form and payment screen and email subscription box, every time you browse an online store, every single digital product on the market today (2.8 million apps on GooglePlay, and counting) – they all need UX and UI designers to make them better. Easier. Faster. More sticky and intuitive and efficient.  

The origins of UX and UI 

UX and UI design are older than you might think. When computers began appearing in the 1970s, they could only be operated by manually inputting thousands of lines of code. There was no graphical user interface (GUI). Menus, dropdowns and icons didn’t exist. The mouse hadn’t been invented yet, because there was nothing to click on. Computers were built for technicians rather than consumers. Today, GUI is so fundamental and intrinsic that it’s hard to imagine any alternative, but when Apple released the Macintosh in 1984, manufacturers suddenly realised they needed creative ways to help regular people interact with their machines. If people couldn’t use computers, they wouldn’t buy them. 

Why people confuse UX and UI 

The whole ‘UX vs UI’ battle isn’t really a battle at all. The two fields aren’t in competition. They’re disciplines that complement one another, and they both serve technology’s higher purpose: help the user solve a problem.  

UI Design (in a nutshell) is anything that users interact with when using a digital product or service. Imagine you’re shopping online. The layout of the clothes, the colour of the ‘BUY’ buttons, the placement and size of the prices – they’ve all been relentlessly optimised by a team of skilled UI designers (with the ultimate goal of making you buy more stuff).  

UX is more of an umbrella term that evolved from the primordial soup of interface design. User Experience encompasses all aspects of the user’s interaction with the product. Going back to our online store example, the UI might dictate the visual look and feel of the website, but UX designers will be responsible for the whole user journey: how quickly you found the clothes you were looking for, whether the images helped improve conversion, how easily you navigated the checkout, and how quickly you came back to buy more stuff. UX Designers work with UI designers, Marketing and Product to make the user journey frictionless and addictive. If you find yourself using a digital product and subliminally enjoying the experience (maybe you tell your friends about the website, or use the app subconsciously all the time) that’s probably because a UX team somewhere is doing their job.  

The big differences between UX and UI?

Generally speaking, UI designers are more concerned with visual appearance and customer interaction, right down at the pixel-by-pixel level. The field has a lot of crossover with graphic design, web design and data visualisation. UX designers, on the other hand, tend to spend more time doing quantitative and qualitative customer research, then feeding that information to various departments.   

UX teams always start with a problem or ‘paint point’ – identified through rigorous (some would say endless) customer interviews and data feedback. Imagine a website where customers add clothes to their online cart, but only 15 per cent proceed to purchase. Why? What’s going on? UX teams will look at the data, develop an hypothesis, then design prototypes to test their theories. As a result of that process, UI teams might be tasked to design a more intuitive checkout interface.  

UX and UI aren’t free-standing disciplines – they’re looking at the same problem from two different altitudes. UX designers want to take in the whole beach, while UI designers deal in grains of sand. Designer Nick Babich said it best, “The best products do two things well: features and details. Features are what draw people to your product. Details are what keep them there.”  

Career prospects for UX and UI 

Dara Boland from Morgan McKingley says demand for skilled UX professionals has boomed in the last 12 months. “Business is backing design and is investing more and more in UX,” he says. “We have witnessed a surge in jobs in the space, and a talent war is well underway.” It’s a trend we’re seeing across most industries: demand for UX and UI professionals has never been higher. If you’re thinking about a career change, or upskilling in the essentials of UX and UI, now’s definitely a good time. 

But there are a couple of caveats you should know. As the UX industry boomed, the whole concept of what UX is, and what UX professionals do, has become more and more hazy. Some experts believe UX design will splinter over the next five to ten years, forcing UX professionals to become more specialised. The UI field is also undergoing rapid change, with designers experimenting with AI and algorithmic techniques. That’s not to say we won’t need UI designers in the future – we almost certainly will – but the UI skillset is likely to evolve and shift. As with anything: it pays to diversify.   

Want to get a head start in UX and UI? Check out RMIT’s online courses in User Experience Design and User Interface Design.  

 

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