UX and UI are two terms that are often thrown about interchangeably in the world of product design. While there is some overlap, the essential functions of UI and UX design are very distinct, unique areas of expertise. In this blog post we’ll take a closer look at the more formal definitions and how they might end up being applied in real-life scenarios. 

What is UX (User Experience) Design? 

UX, or User Experience, is a fairly new concept. 

It was first coined back in the 90’s by Don Norman, a cognitive psychologist and author of the book The Design of Everyday Things:

‘User experience’ encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products.

In a way, the term is self-explanatory: UX considers how a user thinks and feels about a product or service, and aims to design a solution that fits their unique needs. 

While there are many design methodologies, UX focuses on the user, addressing topics like:

  • Usability: is it easy and efficient to use?
  • Function: can you accomplish your intended goals?
  • Value: does it carry enough importance, worth, or usefulness? 
  • Impression: is it delightful to use?

To gain answers (and solutions) to these usability questions, UX designers will often conduct user research via testing sessions and interviews to determine the best way forward.

The umbrella term of “UX design” addresses both specific touchpoints of the user experience (like an individual menu link that isn’t working) and the interaction flow as a whole. 

What Does a UX Designer Do?

The role of a UX designer encompasses everything from research and data collection to design mockups of the product interface.

This might mean that specific UX tasks can include:

  • User testing & research
  • Information architecture, so the most important pieces of information are seen first
  • Creating flowcharts to illustrate how users move through the product
  • Designing wireframes, to ensure that all essential elements are accounted for on any given page or screen
  • Writing text for the interface of an app to help the user understand what they can expect to accomplish on any given action

What Soft Skills Does a UX Designer Need?

While many soft skills are important in good UX design, there is one essential, overarching soft skill that’s mandatory: empathy. 

A UX designer can best be described as an advocate for the user. Their number one goal is to create a product that aligns with their ideal customers, is enjoyable to use, and supports the user’s mission (whatever that may be). 

The only way to achieve this is by listening and paying attention to what users are saying and doing, and using this information to direct your work.

Paula Darias, a product designer at WhoCanFixMyCar, shares that:

Informal talks with users have helped me learn a lot about the user journey and the web structures that would have never crossed my mind otherwise.

In addition to empathy, a general suite of soft skills for UX designers should include:

  • Curiosity, or a desire to dive deeper when understanding users
  • Critical thinking, to solve usability problems efficiently and effectively
  • Growth mindset, to stay on top of trends and retain a receptive mind
  • Collaboration, to work well with others who might not fully understand the user-centric approach to design

What is UI (User Interface) Design?

UI stands for User Interface. Unlike UX, which can talk about physical as well as digital products, UI is a term that is only used within the digital world.

A large part of the UI design process is centered around visual design elements: nailing down color, typography, and layout. UI design focuses on creating an interface that’s easy and enjoyable to use, reducing cognitive load, and establishing consistency within the visual elements of the product.

Ironically, although UI refers to what you can see and where you interact with a product, it tends to be virtually invisible when done well: every button, link, and image works together to lead the user from point A to point B. No extra thought or analysis needed.

In the mind of the user, it just works.

What Does a UI Designer Do?

UI design is essentially a marriage between graphic, visual, and web design skills, as well as a deep knowledge of how humans interact with their digital devices.

Throughout the course of a workday, UI-specific tasks could include:

  • Choosing color schemes that are brand-aligned and account for visibility requirements
  • Establishing or updating a design system to improve consistency
  • Designing a full mockup of a website and the responsive design of mobile apps
  • Making sure the typography is easy to read and reflects the information hierarchy on the page
  • Collaborating with both the UX designer and the development team to ensure your mockup fits all requirements

What Soft Skills Does a UI Designer Need?

In many environments, a UI designer is the middleman between ideation, strategy, and the code-heavy process of product development. This requires a strong set of communication skills.

A UI designer considers various conflicting opinions, then produces multiple iterations to arrive at a solution that’s the best fit for both the end user and the capabilities of the team.

Soft skills that are important for UI designers include:

  • Creativity, to think outside the box when designing interfaces
  • Attention to detail, to create pixel perfect, high-fidelity mockups
  • Receptiveness to feedback, to produce effective design iterations
  • An eye for design, to produce work that’s aesthetically pleasing as well as functional

How Are UI and UX Different?

Have you ever visited an absolutely beautiful website, filled with striking illustrations and the perfect balance of typography? All of those first impressions–the colors, images, and buttons–are the UI.

Now, let’s say that you’re shopping for gift cards on this stunning website. It’s time to check out and you submit your order. The dial spins, and your cart disappears without a trace. No confirmation message, nothing to indicate that the order was placed successfully. You try two more times to complete your order before giving up… only to find three separate receipts waiting for you in your inbox.

That’s bad UX.

(This is a true story, by the way, and the reason why one special friend received over $75 worth of coffee gift cards from me this year, when I’d only intended to send her $25. You’re welcome, friend.)

In general, the differences between UI and UX can be summarized as follows:

UX vs UI design comparison chart

How Do UI Design and UX Design Work Together?

In The Design of Everyday Things, Don Norman writes that:

Design is really an act of communication, which means having a deep understanding of the person with whom the designer is communicating.

In this sense, UX and UI design are two sides to the same coin. (Or, as Plato would say: the two horses pulling your chariot.) Both are (or should be) focused on empowering the user and creating a product that’s accessible. But they only succeed when they work together.

A website might have an aesthetically pleasing UI—but if it’s full of broken links and you can’t find the checkout button, the bad UX will result in no sales and irritated visitors. Likewise, an app that’s easy to navigate but lacks an aesthetic and engaging interface just isn’t going to be as pleasant to use as, say, Duolingo.

What UI and UX Look Like in the Real World

While there are separate career paths for UI vs UX design, you’ll likely notice that the actual job requirements from companies hiring for UX or UI designers often include an assortment of skills from each side. This is why one of the most common job titles found in the field, and those which our UX Academy graduates land, is “UI/UX Designer”.

The most compelling design portfolios demonstrate a working knowledge of not only the UX-focused research and strategy behind product design, but also the ability to bring the product to life through UI design.

How to Learn More About UI and UX Design

The definitive line between UI and UX tends to be much-debated and ever-changing. So, while it’s nice to have a working definition to conceptualize the strengths and weaknesses of each area, you’ll likely discover that day-to-day work as a designer includes a rich combination of both skills. 

If you’re looking to transition your career into the world of UX/UI design, then learning UI design is the best place to start. With UX Academy Foundations, you'll work 1-on-1 with an expert mentor to learn key UI design concepts and practical skills. By the end, you'll be ready to progress on to UX Academy, which is where you’ll really get into UX design and work towards landing a job in the field.

author avatar

Maria Myre

Designlab

Content Specialist

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