The terms UI and UX design are often conflated or used interchangeably in conversation despite the massive differences between the two. This conflation can make it exceedingly difficult for those without a background in coding and application development to understand the different critical roles that both of these elements play in the performance of highly successful mobile apps and websites. The intent of this article is to go in-depth to explore the similarities and differences between UI and UX design. It's also intended to show how each of them works closely together to help create successful websites and applications that users can interact with and make use of easily and efficiently.
In short, the user interface (UI) of a system refers to how a user interacts with a specific computer system to complete a particular task or achieve a goal, like buying and downloading an app. This is generally done by using different types of software, input devices (like a mouse, keyboard, and a joystick), and output hardware (like monitors, printers, and audio speakers) that provides information to users. These input and output devices work together to allow users to control a machine or program fully. UI design can also be thought of as the look, presentation, and interactivity of a product.
UI design is so often conflated with UX design that many “expert” definitions of UI look almost identical to UX definitions, even going so far as to describe the same sorts of structural techniques. The differences between the two will be explored more in-depth in a later section, but for now, you can think of the primary difference as this:
There are several different types of user interfaces utilized to make a range of successful products and systems. Still, three UI types tend to be more commonly recognized than others. These three user interfaces include command-line interfaces, graphical user interfaces, and voice-based interfaces.
Back in the early age of computers during the early 1970s, the only natural way people could interact with computer systems was through command-line interfaces (CLI). This process involves users (also referred to as operators) inputting commands into a computer program via lines of linear text after being given a visual prompt from the computer’s program. The computer then responds to the specific order issued by the user, and then the user can type in more commands when provided with a command prompt by the program. This allows users to input several commands that the system or program will execute. CLI provides a large deal of control and power over an operating system to users through these succinct commands.
Graphical user interface (GUI) is a type of user interface that permits operators to interact with digital products and programs through various visual elements, including icons, menus, tabs, cursors, windows, and more. GUI was developed during the late 1970s and early 1980s to respond to the inefficient usability of CLIs. They have since become the standard for user-centered design in the application programming of electronic software. Users will typically go through a series of screens or pages containing several static and active elements when interacting with GUI design. Static features refer to parts of a page or screen that are static and unchanging, such as text sections. In contrast, active features refer to components that can be changed or interacted with in some way, such as buttons and other interactive controls.
In the book entitled The Simple Path to Brilliant Technology, author Golden Krishna states that “the best interface is no interface,” which is essentially why voice-based interfaces have come into play over the past several years. Because different systems operate using very different GUI designs, the interfaces tend to come with a relatively steep learning curve that users have to repeatedly go through every time they interact with a new product or system. This struggle is the primary reason why so many individuals within the design and development industry have long since been hoping to create systems that work without user interfaces. Voice-enabled interfaces are the closest we have come to this goal, allowing users to interact with a system without the need for physical contact. This type of interface has resulted in the production of numerous revolutionary devices, including Amazon Alexa and Apple’s Siri voice assistant.
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User experience (UX) refers to the user’s experience whenever they interact with a product or service. It encompasses all aspects of end-user interaction with a company and its services and products. Unlike UI, UX refers to both physical and digital products to create structural design solutions that address the pain points a user may encounter at any point along their journey with a specific product. UX can be applied to anything a user can experience (such as a website or application) as part of their interaction with a company or its products.
Effective UX design explicitly addresses the ways users interact with systems and how these interactions make them feel, as well as how easy it is for a user to complete a desired task through a system. For example, say that a user visits a particular website’s shop to purchase a product or two, like a blender and potato peeler. How easy is it for you to input your payment information, address, and buy the products? How easy are the products to use once you have received them? If there’s a product issue and they need to be returned, how straightforward is the return and refund process? Ultimately, quality UX design aims to create easy, effective, and stress-free experiences for users. It doesn’t focus on the visuals or aesthetics of a system like UI does, but instead focuses on the feeling of user experience. Theoretically speaking, this means that UX is essentially a non-digital practice that relies on understanding cognitive and behavioral science. However, it is defined and used by predominantly digital industries.
Seven key facets go into creating effective UX systems, which are commonly referred to together as the UX honeycomb. These seven facets include usefulness, desirability, accessibility, credibility, findability, usability, and value. Every piece of software or application will be different depending on the balance between these facets, the context they are being used in, and the content created based on them.
This facet refers to the ability of a system, program, product, or service to fulfill the needs and wants of users. If a system is deemed unuseful and can’t meet the needs and wants of a user, then the system itself does not have a purpose and will likely not be used by many people.
Desirability refers to the visual aesthetics and appearance of a product, service, or system, which should be easy to understand and attractive to users. The most desirable designs are simplistic and to the point, allowing users to do whatever they need to do quickly and without any time-wasting hangups.
A product or service should be designed to be easy to navigate and accessible to all kinds of users, especially those with disabilities. It’s essential to ensure that all users can have the same overall user experience, as inaccessibility can be a fast killer of any product or service’s chance at finding success within the larger market.
A company that produces a system or offers specific products and services needs to be credible and trustworthy in the eyes of its users and customers. If a company isn’t perceived as credible, it is less likely that users will be willing to work with it or give up their hard-earned money.
The findability facet refers to the fact that information should be easily findable within a system and easy to navigate and use. If a user experiences a particular issue, they should be able to quickly and effectively find a solution. They shouldn’t have to waste their time trying to locate hidden answers to their problems and questions. Findability can also refer to a program’s overall organizational structure, which should always be set up to make sense to users.
This facet refers to the overall simplicity and ease of a product or service’s movement through a system. In short, programs need to be designed to be easy to use and understood effectively; otherwise, people can become frustrated and stop using that system altogether. Additionally, the learning curve that users need to go through to learn how to operate within a system should be as short and stress-free as possible.
Value frequently refers to the money or time that a program, product, or service can save users and customers. The value of these things is mainly going to depend on a system’s overall function and purpose, along with the needs and wants of individual users.
Put simply, UI design is a human-first approach to designing the overall aesthetic experience of a digital product for a user. In contrast, UX design is a human-first approach that refers to the overall function and performance of a product and how each of these elements impacts the way a user feels about said product. If that explanation isn’t quite clear, however, you can try thinking of it in a few other ways. Take riding a horse, for example. In that case, the UI would refer to the saddle, reins, and stirrups, while UX refers to the overall feeling you have from riding the horse. Or, if you’d rather use an anatomical visualization, you can think of the human body. Basic code would serve as the bones, while the organs represent UX design, which measures and optimizes input and output while running critical life functions. On the other hand, UI would refer to the cosmetics and overall appearance of the body, including its presentation. In short, UI design is the icing on top of the UX cake.
It’s critical to understand that while UI and UX design are significantly different (even if they are often used mistakenly or interchangeably), they go hand-in-hand. It’s almost impossible to create a successful system without each element being present. Neither is better than the other, and they play essential roles in developing systems, products, and services. For example, a mobile application or website that looks great but is too tricky or convoluted to use is an example of solid UI but weak UX. And an application or website that runs well and is easy to use but that doesn’t look aesthetically appealing is an example of solid UX design but weak UI design. While there are some examples of relatively successful products and systems that only make good use of one of these elements, the most successful products are ones that incorporate both together effectively.
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