UX vs. UI Design: What’s The Difference?

May 3, 2022 | UI/UX Design | 0 comments

UX vs UI

If you work in any customer-centric industry (particularly in the digital sphere), you’ve likely come across the terms ‘UX’ and ‘UI’ on countless occasions, often with the word ‘design’ appended to them. Increasingly, businesses are wising up to the power of leveraging effective UX and UI design strategies to create frictionless interactions and drive user engagement.


While UX and UI inevitably exist side-by-side (as one cannot meaningfully exist without the other), it’s just as important to examine both in isolation — and appreciate their fundamental differences — as it is to understand why (and how) they’re so unbreakably linked.


Before we can truly understand how UX and UI differ as well as how they dovetail, it’s useful to first establish exactly what we mean by the terms UX and UI.


What is UX design?

UX refers to the “user experience” of a product, service, website or application. According to Don Norman, the cognitive scientist and design consultancy co-founder who first coined the term, “user experience encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services and its products.”


UX design focuses on the overall journey a user is taken on when interacting with a product, covering each touchpoint from the initial contact to the last. Efficiency and ease-of-use are often the main goals here, but a positive user experience also elicits enjoyment, fulfills a need and alleviates pain points. Essentially, the UX determines how easy and enjoyable (or conversely, how difficult and unrewarding) a user’s overall interaction is.


A UX designer, therefore, is tasked with creating a highly “usable” experience, ensuring the interaction feels seamless, responsive, intuitive and (ultimately) pleasurable, and removing any stumbling blocks a user may encounter along the way. Their job will inevitably require them to consider background technical factors including page speed and caching — factors that can easily go overlooked otherwise.


Look at it this way. In recent years, skyrocketing usability standards and looming security threats have given rise to wide-ranging B2B SaaS solutions (think about cloud-based hosting services, for instance, with some — e.g. Cloudways with its recently-announced Cloudflare integration — now featuring increasingly-important cybersecurity measures) — but those systems wouldn’t get sign-off without the staunch advocacy of web UX designers. UX teams are essential for competitive websites.


What is UI design?

UI refers specifically to the “user interface” (simply, the space where interaction occurs between a user and a machine) and is generally divided into two parts: the visual design (which establishes the look and feel) and the functional design (the structural organization of elements within the page, the site or the app).


When we refer to UI design, we’re generally talking about the images a user sees, the type of text they read, the buttons they click on or the animations and videos they interact with (namely, the tools that allow a user to interact with the interface itself). UI, therefore, is often more concerned with (but not necessarily limited to) the visual elements of the site or app.


The job of a UI designer, then, is to decide upon color palettes, fonts, images, CTAs and more, with the aim of creating a visually-stimulating and functionally-efficient environment that not only engages users but also matches the aim and the personality of their brand.


We touched upon UX being vital for the back-end of a website, but there’s no sense in having a robust system that’s awful to use. Getting the right foundation in place merely sets the stage for your website to dazzle visitors — particularly since most companies (and all leading brands) have strong hosting in place these days. Settling for a premade theme will leave your company looking humdrum. Only painstaking effort (most likely with extensive A/B testing courtesy of a service like Optimizely) can deliver exceptional results.


What’s the difference between UX and UI design?

Because UX and UI design are so delicately intertwined (and so dependent on each other for survival) it’s easy to consider them one and the same – or, at the very least, thoroughly interchangeable. But while in many ways they are inseparable (and it’s common for a business to hire a single UX/UI designer rather than use separate roles) there are some crucial distinctions between the two, and understanding these differences is just as important as understanding how (and why) they work in unison.


At a fundamental level, UX is concerned with what an individual takes away from their entire interaction with a product, service, website or app, and determines whether their overall experience is a positive, negative or neutral one, whereas UI is composed of all the elements that enable the user to interact with it: how the product’s visual and functional elements look, behave and react.


Think of it as a journey: if the UX is focused upon the user’s entire quest toward solving a problem — from the point they ‘set off’ (usually with a Google search) to the point their destination has (or hasn’t) been reached —then the UI provides the tools to help them get there. If those tools are lacking or unfit for purpose, their journey is likely to be a bumpy (or unsuccessful) one, and their overall experience will be negatively impacted.


If you were scaling a mountain, say, the UI would be your hiking boots, your walking poles and your wet weather gear (the tools that enable you to make the journey) whereas the UX would be your overall experience of the trek, encompassing everything from the weather to the state of your aching limbs (and, of course, whether you managed to reach the summit!).


To give some further context to the distinction, Don Norman and his business partner Jakob Nielsen used the example of a movie review website: while the website’s UI for finding a movie might be perfectly intuitive, the UX will be poor if the user wants to find information about small, independent releases when the site’s underlying database only includes major studio films.


This is where it’s important to distinguish between the two, but also understand why UX and UI are in a codependent relationship. In this example, the user will likely walk away from their interaction frustrated, confused or unfulfilled because their user experience (UX) was an adverse one, despite the fact that the user interface (UI) was theoretically spot-on.


How do UX and UI design work together?

We’ve seen how UX and UI are inherently distinct, but it’s also clear that one cannot exist (at least not productively) without the other. Indeed, you’ll often see the crossover term “UX/UI design” referred to in books, articles and on technology-based news sites, underlining the fact that many tech professionals and organizations still see them as two sides of the same coin.


This is largely because, when designing a UX strategy, it’s impossible not to consider UI (and vice-versa). After all, a product that looks great but is near-impossible to use is just as impractical when the opposite is true. If your shiny, visually-engaging app fails to load content or links to broken pages, your UX is undermining your UI; conversely, if the same app is a breeze to navigate but the text is illegible and the images are blurry, your UI is doing no favors for your UX.


Companies and website owners pitch it right (and keep users returning for more) when they seamlessly marry the two, ensuring that one serves the other in a mutually beneficial relationship. And given that 88% of users are less likely to return to a website after one bad experience, it’s imperative that UX and UI are combined to create an appealing, effortless, pain-free interaction with your product, site or app.


When designing an effective UX/UI strategy, it’s beneficial to look at how all the elements of UX and UI combine to tap into each user’s motivations, emotions, desires and fears, and how the design and functionality of your site or app can serve (or alleviate) these. Your UX design is likely to be driven by data (mapping engagement, measuring exit rates and tracking the time users spend interacting with content) and requires wireframing, prototyping and usability testing to build an optimal experience, while UI design involves visual branding (from typography to color theory) and knowledge of responsive design to present that experience in a way that will compel and engage users.


Why are UX and UI design so important?

The holy grail for many business owners and ecommerce directors is customer engagement. A high level of engagement will ensure that users not only enjoy interacting with your company (digitally or otherwise) but also feel their needs are tailored to. Get those things right, and they’ll likely return to your products or services again and again — and brand loyalty is a mission-critical element. In fact, highly-engaged customers buy 90% more often and spend more with brands they’re loyal to, so the ROI potential is vast.


Customer engagement is increasingly dependent on UX and UI design; the experience a user has when interacting with your product is a primary factor in determining whether that user is likely to return or seek out a competitor. If the polished aesthetic of your site or app is matched by the experience it provides, it’s far more likely to attract, inspire and engage its users, converting casual passers-by into loyal brand advocates. In contrast, if your UX and/or your UI is underdeveloped, that first user interaction will almost certainly be the last.


A robust UX and UI strategy will also save your business time (and money) in the long run. An intuitive, obstacle-free experience will mean fewer frustrated users, and thus fewer calls, emails and messages to customer service teams, freeing up resources to concentrate on design, development and other needle-moving factors.


Purely from a digital perspective, your SEO will benefit greatly from an optimized UX/UI. The primary goal of search engines is to serve up valuable, credible results that meet the specific needs of a user, so your UX and UI design is crucial when it comes to boosting SEO rankings. For instance, structured data helps search engines interpret the content and subject matter of a page, enabling them to determine its relevance to search queries, while a high level of user engagement will tell the search engine your content is valuable, escalating your site’s perceived authority and driving relevant traffic to your pages.


To summarize, it’s plainly evident that your user experience (UX) strategy cannot prosper without a robust user interface (UI) design, while the opposite is also true. And while these two components often need to be given separate attention due to their complex differences (and the diverse skill sets required to navigate them), the effectiveness of each is closely tied to the other.


Any successful UX/UI design strategy, therefore, requires not only a precise understanding of the distinctions between UX and UI, but also the ability to make them work alongside one another seamlessly. Nailing the balance will not only advance the design and the functionality of your product, site or app, but also enhance the overall experience of your users, building a higher level of engagement, driving increased traffic and bolstering your growth potential.


Rodney Laws is an ecommerce expert with over a decade of experience in building online businesses. Check out his reviews on EcommercePlatforms.io and you’ll find practical tips that you can use to build the best online store for your business. Connect with him on Twitter @EcomPlatformsio

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