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What is UX? And what on earth is UI?

If you’ve spent any amount of time in the tech space or even dipped your toes into job boards these days, you’ll have seen the phrases “UX” and “UI” pop up. And if you’re still wondering what these two things mean (or are they the same thing?), well, you’re in the right spot.

What is UX? And what on earth is UI?

If you’ve spent any amount of time in the tech space or even dipped your toes into job boards these days, you’ll have seen the phrases “UX” and “UI” pop up. And if you’re still wondering what these two things mean (or are they the same thing?), well, you’re in the right spot.

Here, we’ll explore what these two things actually mean, why they’re important, and the reasons why you might be seeing more and more jobs popping up in these fields.

What is UX?

Simply put, UX stands for User Experience. The field incorporates a whole range of activities that help products (usually apps and software) create “meaningful and relevant experiences for users”.

People who work in UX are very often asking questions in order to get to the bottom of the why, what, and how of a product. In other words, they’re looking to understand three things:

  • Motivation: why a user would purchase/download a product?
  • Functionality: what can a user achieve with the product?
  • Accessibility: how will the user engage with the product?

The ultimate goal of UX is to look beyond the physical (or virtual) product and understand the entire experience around the product to make it successful.

This means that they’re the “big picture thinkers” of the product. And ultimately, all of these thoughts and findings should translate into real changes in the product - whether it’s a button placed in a different location or a whole feature offering.

Their work is absolutely critical to the success of a product (you can see some examples here and here). In a world with increasing competition between apps and products offering similar, if not identical services or goods, a great user experience is what sets these teams apart. And understanding the user and their local environment is essential.

Simple enough, right?

What is UI?

So now we know what UX is. What the heck is UI? UI stands for User Interface and refers to the design of the actual application (app) or product itself.

They Make Design couldn’t have said it any better: “It consists of the buttons users click on, the text they read, the images, sliders, text entry fields, and all the rest of the items the user interacts with. This includes screen layout, transitions, interface animations, and every single micro-interaction. Any sort of visual element, interaction, or animation must all be designed.”

So while UX focuses on the overall experience of the app/product, UI focuses on its overall appearance and visuals. This means that UI professionals are traditionally designers who design (but don’t necessarily build) the product and, in comparison to their “big picture” counterparts, they are intensely focused on the visual aspects of a product.

You can find UI designers busy with the following:

  • Working on the interface’s layout
  • Designing components of the interface
  • Visual design
  • Designing interactive elements
  • Establishing visual guidelines

Why are UX and UI mentioned together?

So this must get you thinking: why are these two concepts so often mentioned together if they’re not the same? Or you may have already guessed the connection.

Both of them are crucial to making a great product. That’s it!

The two work so closely together, in iterative cycles of product and interface improvements, that very often the fields are combined into a single role: the UX/UI designer. And while many argue that the roles should be separate and even comprise separate teams within a company, start-ups have tended to prefer to hire a combined role.

UX and UI skills

Regardless of the approach to hiring, this indicates the closeness of the two fields and the transferable skills that they share.

  • Research: Each field needs to deep dive into research— real analytical and scientific approaches— in order to better understand what motivates users and how they engage with the product. They are tinkerers and tend towards testing (instead of relying on assumptions).
  • Collaboration: Both UX and UI need to tap into one another, but also into other teams like customer success, support, or product development. They’re skilled collaborators.
  • Communication: It goes hand-in-hand with collaboration, but great communication is a must for both of these fields.
  • Wireframing and prototyping: In order to test and visualize the product and any changes, they’ll need to put together rough wireframes and possibly even build MVP (minimal viable product) prototypes or samples of the product.
  • Visual storytelling: Both fields share visual elements, which make it important for anyone working in this space to be able to (however roughly) express themselves and their plans visually.
  • User empathy: The “U” in both of these fields certainly stands for something! Both kinds of designers are intensely concerned with users and must often put themselves in the users’ position in order to better understand them.

With so many shared skills, it’s no surprise that the fields tend to be combined into one role. But this does means that, where there is a combined role, the balance of UX versus UI will always be different.

Some companies may focus more on the visual aspects of their product over the holistic experience and vice versa. So you may have a UX designer who does a little UI or a UI designer who does a little UX.

So why do companies invest in UX and UI?

We said it before and we’ll say it again good UX and UI are at the heart of a successful product. And besides the satisfaction of creating a product that users are actually happy to use, there are a few other benefits that companies should seriously consider like:

  • Saving developer time by weeding out issues on the user side earlier than the product launch. There’s really no need to make a developer build something twice.
  • Creating more loyal customers. Happier customers tend to stick around longer.
  • Attracting more users by word-of-mouth. Think about how much people talk about the products they love.
  • A nicer-looking product that’s easier to navigate. On a pride level, no one wants a product that looks like it’s stuck in the early 2000s or one that prompts click-rage.

It’s all related. Happier users = more users = more revenue. It can be that simple when it’s done right!

Learn more about careers in UX/UI here

Adrie Smith

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