UI vs UX - Explaining the Differences Between Both

By Cody Arsenault
Published on January 4, 2018
UI vs UX - Explaining the Differences Between Both

Some developers have the habit of using terms such as UI and UX interchangeably. However, UX, or user experience, is not the same thing as a UI, or user interface. Therefore, it's important to make a distinction between the two when talking about software development and design. This guide will explain the intricacies between UI vs UX to help you better understand how they differ.

UI vs UX: Why two terms?

UX isn't just a buzzword invented to replace UI, but UI could be thought of as one part of UX. Whereas UI is closely related to graphic design, UX design involves the more technical aspects of development including testing and research.

Think of an application as a vehicle. Everything under the hood that makes it run is the code. The body and interior design could be thought of as the UX design. The paint, leather seat covers and other cosmetic features are the UI. In other words, the UI design is what the user can see and touch, and the UX is the underlying structure that supports the UI. The image below is a popular depiction of UI vs UX.

In the context of software design, think about a button on a webpage. A UI designer would be concerned with what the button looks like, its color and its shape. A UX designer would decide on the best place to put the button and determine where it should lead visitors. Therefore, the UI designer is responsible for visually communicating the path a that UX designer wants users to follow. The UX designer sets the course, and the UI designer paves the way.

Do we really need both?

Making a distinction between UI vs UX design can help companies gain a better understanding of what their users want; however, in reality, many times web developers often find themselves performing the roles of both a UX and UI designer.

Nonetheless, having two separate individuals or teams focusing on each one can result in superior applications that appeal to a wider audience. Of course, some detractors will argue that adding more input into a project can result in applications feeling disjointed, and that can certainly happen in the case of poor UX design. However, if done right, incorporating the principles of UX design can help businesses better connect business goals with users' needs.

What is user experience (UX)?

As its name implies, UX design prioritizes ease of use. The term is often credited to cognitive scientist Don Norman, who described UX as "all aspects of the end-user's interaction with the company, its services, and its products." By that definition, UX design is related to the field of market research. While this concept is applicable to any product, the term is typically used in web developer circles.

As you can image, the field of UX design is very multifaceted. The following tasks all fall under the category of UX design.

Customer and competitor analysis

The crucial first step to any creative job is knowing your audience. UX designers collect and analyze data to figure out what their users want. They also look at what other companies are doing to determine which web design features are most effective at converting potential leads.

Wireframing and prototyping

UX designers provide prototypes for UI designers to build upon. This process always involves a lot of testing and iterations.

Development planning

Since the job requires a lot of coordination with developers and UI designers, leadership skills are required of UX designers. They may also be responsible for keeping track of goals and integration.

Apart from the structure of an application, the performance of an application is also important when discussing user experience. Implementing strategies to improve the perceived performance, as well as actual performance, are both necessary. Otherwise, many users may not even be able to get to navigate through the application or website due to slow load times which leads to bounces. There are various ways to achieve better performance for an improved UX, one of which is using a content delivery network.

What is user interface (UI)?

The job of a UI designer is to take all of the market research and prototypes provided by UX designers to create attractive visual layouts that are responsive and guiding. However, as mentioned earlier, it's not uncommon for developers to find themselves performing the dual role of UI designer and UX designer, especially on smaller projects. The following tasks fall under the realm of UI design.

Guiding users through visual storytelling

UI designers must understand how the human brain responds to visual cues. For example, how do you indicate to users that a graphic is a button they should click on rather than a random image? A UI designer's job is to teach users how to use an app using as few words as possible. Like everything else in the development process, this step requires repeated prototyping and user testing.

Graphic and animation development

It should go without saying that UI designers need to be comfortable working with a range of animation and graphic design software. In addition to building graphical interfaces, UI designers may also be recruited to create logos and other marketing material.

Responsive software design

With the ever-expanding variety of mobile devices available, optimizing software for different screen sizes has become an art and science in itself. UI designers are at the forefront of the ongoing battle to make apps look their best on every device.

Read more about the 10 essentials benefits of responsive web design.

UI vs UX: Role in branding

In the world of web development, UI is often closely tied to branding. For example, Apple products are known for their minimalistic interfaces. As a general rule, users prefer less clutter on their screens, but providing too few cues can leave users frustrated. Striking a balance is often a joint effort between the UX and UI designers.

UI designers shouldn't be solely responsible for branding, but part of their job is to communicate brand values and messages. You may have heard the mantra "packaging is marketing," which simply means that a product's visual presentation is often what initially attracts consumers. Users associate specific layouts and colors with specific companies, so UI designers must be able to maintain a consistent art style that is often determined by someone else whether it be a UX designer or a marketing executive. In that regard, UI designers have limited creative freedom since they are usually visualizing other people's ideas.

How UI and UX work together

In web development, UX designers determine the steps that users take to do things like sign up for newsletters, make purchases and search for products. UX designers may spend a lot of time developing personas and user stories to answer questions such as, "If I'm searching for a particular medium-sized red Christmas sweater, what is the easiest way to find it in the online store?"

The UX designer may then make flow-charts for the UI designers to build off of. UI designers help facilitate user interactions by adding extra details to guide users through the app or website. UX design is all about utility while UI designers aim to draw users in. This process entails establishing visual patterns to let users know where they are and what they can do. Sometimes the UI designer has complete creative freedom, and other times not.


Moving forward, you should now have a better understanding of the differences between UI and UX. All working web developers should be familiar with the principles of both UX and UI design even if they don't work in those particular fields. Regardless of your job title on a particular project, you'll often find yourself wearing more than one hat at a time.

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