Job opportunities abound in both User Experience (UX) and User Interface (UI) design – and this weekend at Designlab, we’re launching our first course that focuses specifically on user interfaces. But what’s the difference between these design roles – and what set of skills does each one require?
The short answer is that UX design describes an entire product design process, while UI design is just one – extremely important – part of that method.
The UX design process is quite flexible, bending to the shape of different design problems. Nevertheless, here’s an outline of a typical process:
- Discovery and ideation
A project often starts with observation of an unmet user need. This “discovery” stage leads on to defining the design problem, and agreeing an overall project goal.
- User Research and Strategy
We then move on to initial user research, which identifies the product’s prospective user groups, and seeks to document and understand their needs. Analysis of this information leads on to the formation a design strategy.
- Prototyping and Testing
Insights gathered through user research allow the designer to create low-fidelity prototypes of a product, and conduct the first round of user testing.
- Iteration and Testing
Several rounds of iteration and testing usually follow. The prototypes become more high-fidelity, and user testing begins to focus on finer details as we move towards a final product.
Since every product has a user experience, the UX design process is a method that can be applied to all product design – not just apps and websites.
However, in many of today’s jobs, what is meant by UX is often digital UX, for the simple reason that so many of our product experiences as consumers are now through phones, computers, and other smart devices.
A user interface (UI) refers to the space in which a user interacts with a computer or machine, typically involving an exchange of information and commands.
Today, the UI designs that we’re most familiar with are those delivered through screen interfaces – also known as GUIs (graphical user interfaces) – such as smartphones. But we are surrounded by many other types of interface – for example, smart thermostats, voice interfaces like Siri, and bedside clinical monitoring equipment.
The purpose of UI design is to facilitate a user’s interactions with a product. A good interface does this by anticipating user needs, and providing easy-to-understand UI elements that allow them to reach their goal in manageable steps. Examples of screen UI elements include input fields, buttons, and notifications.
Any UI design must respond to the particular purpose of the product in question. For example, people are likely to be using many of their phone apps when they’re in a rush – perhaps trying to complete a checkout process while commuting, or booking a cab when already late for an appointment.
The priority for designers of mobile UIs is therefore often visual simplicity, clear primary actions, and creating as few steps as possible to reach a goal.
By contrast, in the case of bedside clinical monitoring equipment, the priorities are likely to be quite different. Rather than speed, the most important consideration might be to present an accurate overview of a patient’s condition to the user, provision of a clear range of options to drill down into more detail, and an audible alarm to notify the user of an urgent problem.
The job of a UI designer in the product design process is to shape how any interface looks and behaves, in a way that’s appropriate to the product’s purpose and the user’s goals.
Careers in UX vs UI - which should you choose?
If you’re interested in both the bigger picture of UX, and the fine craft of UI design, the good news is that you don’t have to choose!
Many employers advertise for combined UX/UI design roles. What’s more, UX Designers in the USA now earn an average salary of over $80,000.
You can gain the expertise required to work as a UX researcher and strategist, alongside getting trained up in the visual and interaction design skills that will enable you to create great user interfaces.
Alternatively, you can aim to specialize and eventually position yourself as an expert in UX or UI design. Whatever your chosen path, here’s some further reading to get your learning journey started!
- Getting Started in UX Design(DL)
- UX Design Process: Is there really one? (UsabilityGeek)
- Complete Beginner's Guide to UX Research (UXBooth)
- User Personas: What are they and why use them? (DL)
- Where will UX Design be in 5 years? 5 predictions (DL)
- Getting Started in UI Design (DL)
- User Interface Design Basics (usability.gov)
- User Interface Elements (usability.gov)
- Principles of User Interface Design (Bokardo.com)
- From MS-DOS to Material Design: A Brief History of User Interfaces(DL)
At Designlab, we've helped thousands of students level up their skills through courses in design fundamentals and user experience (UX) design - including our flagship UX Academy program. Find out more!