The tech world is filled with terms that feel exclusive to outsiders, but few are thrown around as much as UX/UI. A quick web search shows that these terms are almost always used hand in hand, often interchangeably. However, while UX and UI design certainly go in tandem, they describe different parts of the software design process.
Defining UX & UI
Although the term UX is most frequently used in defining tech products, the concept applies to any product you can imagine. UX stands for “user experience”—a crucial part of designing all products, from cars to computers to kitchen utensils. It references the feel and ease of the user’s experience with a product, from start to finish.
Three key considerations for designing UX are usefulness, usability, and desirability. We’ll talk more about those later.
UI is a key component of quality UX. “User interface” references the look of your product, but unlike UX, it applies solely to digital products. A UI designer considers typography, color schemes, icon placement, buttons, spacing—all the visual functions your user interacts with while using your software.
Even after defining them, it’s easy to see how the two terms get confused with each other. After all, even if your product gives the user the experience of solving a specific problem, that experience is less meaningful if the interface is terrible.
Both UX and UI take a user-centered approach to designing a product. To understand how the two work hand in hand, let’s dig deeper into what makes up UX and UI design.
UX: Giving the User a Good Experience
Digital software aims to solve a problem and meet a need. A great idea with the best team of digital developers may technically solve a problem, but UX design gives your user a good experience along the way.
In the 1990s, a cognitive scientist named Don Normon coined the term “user experience” while working at Apple. He said, “User experience encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products.”
Think of UX like driving a car. Modern cars offer many ways to interface with them. Digital dashboard, windshield wipers placement, buttons on the door, gearshift location—all these functions were designed with UI in mind.
But how does it feel to operate the car? Is it comfortable? Do you enjoy it? Does it stress you out? Do you want to drive it again? All of that is part of the user experience.
- Every customer, whether consciously or not, will ask three core questions related to UX design:
- Is it useful? Does this product meet a need or solve a problem? Does it serve a purpose? Things that don’t meet this basic requirement aren’t likely to be a success.
- Is it usable? If your app technically does what it’s supposed to but is hard to use, the usability is low. This gives users a negative user experience.
- Is it desirable? Enjoyment while using a product is huge. This doesn’t just mean you users like what it does, but also how it does it.
Designing UX requires identifying the potential pain points of a user and addressing them. When designing UX, it’s important to have a profile of the product’s typical user and a concept of the journey a user will take while using said product.
Great products are created with an ideal target audience in mind. In order to identify what users want and need, software developers create user personas—they create the profile of an imaginary user through research into a target audience.
A user-centric approach to software development needs these as a foundation for design. However, these personas must come from observations of real behavior, not assumptions or wishful thinking from the development team.
Concept of the User’s Journey
A key part of UX design is the user’s journey with a product—the steps a user takes to meet the product’s goal. Mapping out the possible paths of this journey helps identify pain points. These stumbling blocks cause negative emotions if not properly smoothed out.
Alternatively, a pleasant user journey will lead to a positive UX, building user loyalty.
Good UX in Practice
There’s no question about it: positive UX is the end-goal of software development. Designing UX requires extensive research into the habits and trends of your target audience. It helps to research your competitors to see where their UX design falls short. You should address those pain points.
A solid, mapped-out wireframe helps to create the storyboard of a user’s journey. Prototypes and testing are also crucial in making sure the user’s journey is smooth and painless.
A good UX designer collaborates with the UI designer (if they are separate) as well as the entire development team to avoid blind spots and hone in on the ideal UX design.
UI: The User’s Visual Journey
UI design is how the user interacts with the functions of a digital product. Think buttons, labels, location of instructions, spacing, color scheme, and layout. Understanding the UX design process and the research that informs it is crucial in building a UI that intuitively leads users through the product’s interface.
The user personas you build should inform aesthetic and other design decisions. Market research is a great way to get a snapshot of what users find attractive when it comes to how your software looks.
But UI is more than visual effects—layout greatly impacts your product’s efficacy and the user’s ability to interact with it. For example, if the buttons on an app are too close together, the user will have a hard time doing what they want.
Five essential characteristics of a good UI are:
- Clarity: Every element’s purpose should be clear and easy to understand. If a user can’t determine a feature’s purpose quickly, the interface will be frustrating.
- Familiarity: Functions on your software should be similar to those in other commonly-used software. Examples would be the email icon, the settings icon, or the look of a search bar.
- Consistency: Keeping things consistent across platforms makes it easier for users to recognize patterns and use your product more effectively. UI design should be responsive and adjust for various screen sizes and proportions.
- Forgiveness: Prototyping and testing should name simple mistakes people might make. UI designers should forgive these mistakes and design the UI to account for them.
- Efficiency: Nobody wants a slow product. Users should be able to use your product while exerting minimal effort.
Designers should be conscious of common pitfalls of poor UI design, such as not enough white space, poor color combinations, and hard-to-read text. Accessibility and inclusivity are also important considerations in UI design.
Good UX & UI Work Together
While UX and UI are different, they are intrinsically linked. To quote Helga Moreno, “something that looks great but is difficult to use is exemplary of great UI and poor UX. While something very usable that looks terrible is exemplary of great UX and poor UI.”
Clearly, UX and UI design should complement each other. An ugly product that is capable of doing its job is just as likely to scare users away as a beautiful product that’s hard to use.
When finding a design team to develop software, look for designers who put the user at the center of all design decisions—both UX and UI.
The process of UX design requires a solid design strategy, an understanding of users, and clearly mapped out wireframes that put designers in the user’s shoes. The process of UI design requires attention to detail, creative problem-solving skills, and constant communication with the UX design team.
Together, the combination of solid UX/UI design can skyrocket your software solution to success.
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