UI is not UX. Remember that!


Barred Window - Old National Art Galley and Common Museum, Wellington NZ

It amazes me suddenly everyone is a UX designer, what next UX postal workers.

I suspect that most UX designers don’t really know what is involved with a real customer centric process.

When discussing User Experience with people that have only partly encountered the term, I unusually first clear up the  myth that User Experience (UX) is just the User Interface (UI).

Often they are surprised at the extent of UX Design and the degree of scientific rigor behind it.

Now it is good that the term UX is starting to mainstream and all sorts of people outside of the IT, marketing and communications industries are realizing its importance.

Still we need to remember why User Experience is not the User Interface:

  • User Experience is Wider in Scope.

    The User Experience covers a lot more than just the visual presentation layer.  It can be sound, information organization, behavioual response, environmental conditions, service presentation and so on.

  • User Interface is usually just Visual.

    The UI is just the visual design and the interface design. With maybe a little interaction design, but that is it.  It’s very easy to forget about the people aspect of this.

  • It’s more than Design Patterns.

    While design patterns help in the building of a UI. Understanding the behaviours around that pattern and the aspects of the micro interactions is important.

  • UI Rules are not critical.

    Often User Interfaces have rules or guidelines for use.  These are often seem as common solutions and are quoted in support of the UI solution.  This is a good starting point; however the UX context and customer behavior may take the final solution in a different direction.  More work that just applying the “rules” will be required.

The Stuff Before and After the UI

Around the development of any User Interface, ideally there should be a fair amount of UX techniques.

Be this from the initial problem verification, customer research and solution proposals, to the final iterative prototype development and validation.  As you can see there are a good deal of processes that can occur before the UI is even considered.

Process from problem validation to visual and interface design in an iterative loop

The UX process around the Interface Design

Sure usually a good UX professional can do the UI if required, however limiting their skill set to this alone would be a complete waste of a resource.

The External Lens View

We know we have a problem as UX design is invisible.

It’s not a thing you can point to and say – that is the UX design.  With UI design however, you can point and say – “see the sexy User Interface”.

From a external view point, outside of the industry, UX is this magical – almost snake oil like role, that is seen as a luxury item.

After all it doesn’t help in the delivery of the product or making people use it? Or does it?

It could be said that all UX people do is confirm issues, and direct others like developers and designers to the right solutions.   In reality does the role exist at all?

Ask most Project Managers, Team Coaches and Project Leads and they will tell you they aren’t really sure what UX people do. But they are sure that an existing team member can fill the role anyway.

Yes all this is all an education and justification issue, you would think after 10 years we would have nailed that one.

Muddying the Roles

There are a good number of Visual Designers and Front End Developers moving into roles as UX Designers, most by simply changing a position title.

I have no problem with this if a complete customer centric empathic UX Design, as detailed above, is being conducted.

However I have found time and time again this change is just a window dressing at best.

The reality is the only empathy that is expressed is in the statement – “I’m a user, therefore I understand user experience”.  Only a marginal consideration is given to the issues of the customer at all.

This leaves people such as myself with a fair degree of UX consulting experience, in a bind.  As now I’m just seen as a UI designer.

Others in the UX industry, have become more specific in defining what they do, morphing into Interaction Designers, Human Behaviour Consultants, Customer Research Analysts or just Experience Consultants.

This doesn’t help anyone in the long term, as now outside the UX industry is watered down and truly a bit muddy.

Supporting Skills of UX Design

You know in a way maybe UX Design doesn’t really exist. It’s just a term afterall to group together all our skills used to produce balanced solution.

When you’re building for a good UX design, you don’t really go out and apply your skills in UX design. You tend to instead use on of the following supporting techniques to bolster up the UX design solution in context of the overall process; of which the User Interface is just a component.

User Experience Supported by interaction design, usability,behavioural design, user research, content strategy, visual design, info architecture and interface design

Proceses supporting User Experience

Whether you are a recruiter, an agency director or a project manager; remember there is a distinct difference between a UX and UI designer. If you advertise for a hybrid I’m going to expect to see some skills cross over not just front-end designer skills.

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  1. I absolutely agree with you Gary and would add one thing. When interviewing UX Designers, if their explanation of what UX is doesn’t include the business objectives that the UX is being designed for, then I realise they are not what they are not really UX Designers. To my mind, the need for good UX design (and CX, more holistically) is driven by a a commercial objective and isn’t just about delighting users. And the process of UXD, HCD etc is a broad one that may require specialist knowledge in some areas, but any UXD worth his, or her salt, really must be across each of these elements, from requirements gathering, research and user testing, to ideation, wireframing and personas, right the way through to delivery of a solution which shows a business benefit. An ROI.

  2. This is why I think most people that say they “work in UX” are just using it as a catch all.

    Together, a bunch of people are UX (or normally at least 2). Normally it’s not possible for one person to be all of the UX.

    I feel like UX is what a teams does, not a person.

  3. Hi Gary, I would have to disagree with you on this topic. I would argue that there seems to be a great deal of UX designers who think that their role or position encompasses that of an Interactive Designer, Content Strategist and Information Architect (IA) when in fact it doesn’t. UX designers do not design, they do not strategize content and they don’t research information as an IA would. They are all different roles. I would argue though that UX designers are asked to fill the roles of some of these positions or of some hybrid with companies. Mostly companies that don’t understand or value the difference in the roles. Thank you for the article and for keeping this topic of discussion moving. The more people talk about it, the more they debate it, the more attention it will get.

  4. @Aaron Thanks for the comment.

    Little puzzled by your comment UX designers don’t research like an IA does.

    I have worked in various roles over a lot of projects over the years. From an IA, interaction designer and extensively recently as a UX researcher. I would say that in the role of a UX researcher I have researched a lot more deeply than I ever had to as an IA.

    Yes I agree they are different roles, but not every budget for UX is large enough to afford different team members, often it comes down to one or two specialist UX people.

    And yes we need to educate project managers and team leaders on the value and roles of UX.

  5. @Emma – completely, we are on the same page, thanks for the comment.

    @Tristan – yes and no, ideally UX should be a team affair, everyone needs to be responsible for it, like any product outcome. However the specialisation and some of the depth of the skills required doesn’t mean that it can be shared around from a few devs, a PM and the like. All you end up with there is a shallow outcome that is a meer shadow of the expected UX.

  6. Hi Gary,

    My experience with IA’s is them handling the technical aspects related to the data and how it’s handled. This brings up the big IA-little IA debate which Wikipedia does a good of adding some clarity too, and it’s a pretty good read also – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Information_architecture

  7. Hi Aaron – Personally I deal with the people not machine based IA. The enterprise architect and DBA movement into the space just clouds the people issues.

  8. @Aaron I completely disagree with you on your comment. UX Design does encompass all of the columns represented here and I would add a few more to that. Information Architecture and Content Strategy are part of the UXD methodology. I would suggest reading up on UX principles at sites like IXDA. Another blog on the difference between UX and UI can be found here: http://www.helloerik.com/ux-is-not-ui. He quotes Dan Willis and shows Willis’ UX umbrella which is pretty close to the columns shown here.

  9. @Aaron, UX per se, stands for User Experience, therefore the design of user experience comprises a number of core process elements, including, research, IA, requirements gathering, ideation, creation of personas and so on (not in that order). There are many and they are all essential, even development. While many UX designers do not code, they at least understand the development part and all the elements involved, even if they need to bring a developer in to understand what can be delivered. Some organisations separate out the BA role, some the IA role, some even separate the research. It just depends, but these are all part of the UX process, of designing user and customer experiences and of service design, with human centred design at its core, be it for a service, a product, an app, whatever.

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