User Interface and User Experience are two terms you are likely to hear a lot. Their abbreviations, UI and UX even more so. While neither concept is entirely new they are both very important in growing digital industries and so have become important areas of specialisation. UX design is part of our shared module and UI design is taught on the "Digital Designers & Developers" Stream of our BSc (Honours) Degree in Digital Technology, Design and Innovation programme. There is often confusion between the two terms, partly because they sound similar but mostly because they are similar in many ways.
In the very simplest sense, User Experience is about devising the best means of getting information from the application to the user. User Interface, on the other hand, is about devising the optimal way to present that information to the user. Naturally, there are broad areas of overlap between the two and close cooperation between the two disciplines is required for both to be successful.
As the market for digital applications becomes ever more crowded the success of a product comes to depend more and more on the effectiveness of UI and UX. We can get a better understanding of the differences between the two and why they are so important to the tech sector by looking at how they operate with a slightly less technological product.
Let’s consider everyone’s favourite household item, the lamp. In the production of a lamp, UX and UI are combined by the role of the product designer.
The User Experience of a lamp might include the various lighting settings available, if the light can be dimmed, how quickly the light turns on after the switch is flicked, does it come on instantly or does it get gradually brighter.
User Interface might include things like what the switch looks like, where it is located, how it responds to being pressed, what kind of texture the switch has, how easy it is to find or to use.
Of course, we understand that when buying a lamp these are usually secondary considerations. A lamp is an almost ornamental utility where the choice of lamp we make is mostly based on aesthetic. It is also a relatively disposable item but most importantly for UI and UX, we can also have several lamps in our house or office at once, each with a different design.
The UI and UX of a lamp will inform certain core elements of the design requirements of the lamp but much of the lamp’s appearance, it’s colour, the materials it is made from, can vary dramatically outside of that.
With a digital product, things are a little different. Users choose a product primarily for its utility rather than its aesthetic and most importantly they can almost always have only one instance of a product type. Even with a video game, while many people play lots of different games of a similar genre, they can only play one game at a time.
This makes UX and UI the key factors that differentiate one digital product from another. The product that carries out these functions the best is likely to be the one a user selects, the one that gets the most praise in media and the one that gets to establish industry standards.
At its most basic a UX designer’s job is to ensure the user never experiences frustration. This can require a lot of understanding about how people process information but also requires an ability to interpret users’ feedback.
A common example of a UX design job might be deciding how various categories break down on a shopping website such as Amazon. When you look for gloves you have a whole series of options. The more easily you find the gloves you are looking for the better the UX designer has done his job. Remember, you likely don’t even know the exact gloves you are looking for until you find them.
The UI designer also needs to minimise user frustration but will inform the appearance of the category menus, where they appear on the page, how large or small they are, how you select them and how sub menus unfold. They need to understand how users scan a page or a screen, how they intuitively organise information as it is displayed and which information is most critical.
Clearly, there are differences between the two fields as well as overlap. But more important than the differences or overlaps is how the two areas complement each other. For UI and UX to be successful clear communication between the two is required. For the project as a whole to be successful, the UX and UI both need to succeed.