Experience Design

Beware the slash: Distinguishing between UI and UX

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Graphic showing an angry cat growling defiance at a monstrous / punctuation.A colleague and I were discussing challenges in explaining what we do as user experience practitioners. He mentioned a shared pet peeve, the slashing together of UI/UX. I see this most often in job postings, but it appears in technology news, blogs, and even how some people describe their work. The concern that my colleague and I share is that UI and UX are not the same thing. Treating them as synonymous concepts risks diluting the contributions offered by each.
UI and UX are closely related terms, so I understand the temptation to simply consider them as a whole. A discussion on UX.stackexchange considers the distinction between UI and UX. Many good points are made about the roles UI and UX fill when considering design and development. The diversity of comments as well as the long duration in which comments were gathered, however, suggests even professionals in these fields struggle to draw a fixed and firm line between the two concepts.
One way to distinguish between UI and UX is to consider what each brings to their relationship. The UI is a deliverable of the UX and development processes, but it is also the foundation from which user experience, from a psychological perspective, emerges. That is, the user interface is the primary and tangible means by which the user experience of a product occurs.
I find blurring UI and UX most problematic in job descriptions. The collaboration and insights that a team of skilled individuals can achieve by pooling their knowledge does not happen within a single individual. Mike Hughes offers a more role-centered perspective in how he defines UX designers and UI developers. UX designers bring a depth of knowledge for researching users, their tasks, context of use, and expectations for products. UI developers bring a depth of knowledge of the technology and best practices for implementation. Hughes points notes the unique and equally critical contributions each role brings to the development effort.
When members of a team bring mastery of their core disciplines and further have understanding and even some practice in related disciplines, deeper collaboration is possible. It also allows for greater efficiency and productivity, as members can contribute their expertise fully while building on the expertise of their team mates. When I’ve closely collaborated with team mates responsible for the implementation of the UI, our discussions and mastery of our distinct areas of expertise have resulted in richer designs able to deliver a more satisfying user experience.
The distinction between mastery and just having an understanding of a discipline is not trivial, however. Hughes correctly notes that his role definitions are somewhat simplified. The reality is that both roles can have specializations within their distinct fields (UX specializations, for example, include user research, usability testing, interaction design, information architecture, and others), so it’s a challenge to master every aspect of even one of these disciplines. Teams with only single UI/UX position usually make trade-offs, prioritizing skill sets, selecting someone who may have mastery in one area but often much less expertise and experience in the other. This results in a subordinate rather than synergistic relationship between the disciplines of UI development and UX design.
Of course, it is not impossible for UI and UX to meld and result in successful even delightful products. Modern day Da Vinci’s, while incredibly rare, can exist. More frequently, though, successful blending of roles is as much a factor of the scale and scope of the project as the skill of the person in the dual role. Many small-scale, tightly focused products targeted at very specific, niche markets have been successfully developed by one person focused on both UI and UX. Certainly, one person building a work shed or tree house, even elaborate versions, is not far-fetched. I do not want a plumber/electrician to build the house I’m going to live in, however. I want two master professionals contributing their individual expertise to the end result.
The larger the project, the harder it is to have sufficient mastery in all the required areas, not to mention the time, energy, and focus to devote to the full work effort of each role. When working on increasingly sophisticated products to serve the needs of ever more savvy users, it’s possible and may even be optimal to have several UI developers and UX designers, each bringing different specializations within their disciplines to bear. Understanding and maintaining distinctions between UI and UX and the knowing the contributions each makes establishes a foundation for a more successful final product. So beware the slash!
Thanks to Justin Davis for the conversation that inspired this post.

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