UI vs. UX: What You Need to Know to Understand the Difference

UX versus UI. Professional research
Topics on page

User interface (UI) and user experience (UX) are two terms that are often used interchangeably, but they actually refer to very different aspects of a digital product. Understanding the distinction between UI and UX is critical for anyone involved in digital design, whether you’re a product manager, designer, developer or marketer.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll break down exactly what UI and UX mean, the key differences between them, and why both are crucial to creating a successful digital product that delights users. By the end, you’ll have a clear understanding of how UI and UX work together to create great customer experiences.

Defining UI and UX

Before diving into the differences between user interface (UI) and user experience (UX), let’s start with a high-level definition of each term.

User Interface (UI) refers to the visual elements of a digital product that a user interacts with directly. This includes:

  • The overall visual layout and design of the product (e.g. website, app, etc.)
  • Specific screens, pages and visual components (like buttons, icons, toggles, etc.)
  • How information is presented and structured
  • Interactive elements and transitions

In short, UI is the look, feel and interactivity of a product’s visual interface. It’s what users see and interact with directly on-screen.

User Experience (UX) refers to the overall experience a user has when interacting with a digital product. This includes:

  • How easy or intuitive a product is to use
  • How efficiently users can complete tasks
  • How enjoyable or pleasing interactions are
  • The emotions evoked, positive or negative
  • How well the product meets user needs
Key differences between ui and ux

Key Differences Between UI and UX

Now that we have a basic understanding of UI and UX, let’s dive deeper into the key differences between these two disciplines:

UI is Visual, UX is Holistic

The main distinction is that UI focuses on the visuals, while UX encompasses the entire interaction.

UI design is all about creating clean, visually-appealing and interactive interfaces. UX design considers the complete, end-to-end user journey, including finding the product, understanding how it works, and the emotions evoked after use.

UI is Tactical, UX is Strategic

UI design tends to be more tactical and focused on specific screens and components. UX is more strategic and focused on overall customer goals and needs.

UI designers are tasked with making each screen intuitive and usable. UX designers identify broader user needs and conceptualize complete user flows that address those needs. UI is just one aspect of the overall UX.

UI is Static, UX is Dynamic

UI design delivers a static product at any given time. UX evolves over time, adjusting to changes in user feedback and behavior.

After a UI has been implemented, it remains mostly static as users interact with it. Conversely, UX is continually optimized through changes to information architecture, interactions, visuals and content based on real user data.

UI is Visuals, UX Includes Many Disciplines

UI focuses specifically on visual design and interactivity. UX encompasses a multidisciplinary approach.

UI design is largely conducted by visual designers and front-end developers. UX design often draws on research, psychology, information architecture, interaction design, content strategy and more to create the full experience.

UI asks “How?”, UX asks “Why?”

UI designers are focused on “how” the product’s interfaces will look, function and flow. UX designers are more focused on “why” users behave certain ways, and how the product can adapt to meet user needs.

UI asks questions like: How should this screen be laid out? How does this feature work? UX asks questions like: Why do users prefer this flow? Why are users confused here? Why does this workflow create frustration?

UI and UX Work Together

Ui and ux work together

While UI and UX require different skillsets and focus areas, it’s important to understand how they work together to create great products:

  • UI brings UX to life. UX improvements and new features are only valuable if implemented effectively in the product’s UI. A poorly executed UI can ruin an otherwise good UX.
  • UI provides cues about how the product works. Well-designed UI removes confusion by presenting information and interactions in an intuitive way, guiding users through the UX flow.
  • UX informs UI design decisions. Research insights uncover user pain points and needs that directly inform UI redesigns and optimizations.
  • UI and UX iterations should happen in tandem. Continuous improvement of UI and UX together is critical. If the UX evolves but the UI does not adapt, usability suffers.

The common goal is to create straightforward, enjoyable interfaces (UI) that enable users to complete tasks smoothly and satisfy needs (UX).

When UI and UX are aligned and mutually informed through continual collaboration, you get digital products that “click” with users at an instinctual, emotional level. The UI feels easy and natural, facilitating seamless interactions that just feel right. These harmonious experiences result in satisfied users who stay loyal to your product.

UI/UX Workflows and Processes

To help align UI and UX work, most product teams follow a workflow that facilitates collaboration:

  • Research

UX research is conducted first to uncover user needs, pain points and behaviors. Research may include methods like user interviews, surveys, usability testing and data analysis.

  • Analysis

Insights from UX research are analyzed to define key user problems and requirements. Personas and use cases are created.

  • Information Architecture

An IA is outlined to organize content and functionality in an intuitive way that supports user goals. This may include sitemaps, content inventory, taxonomies and content structure.

  • Interaction Design

Wireframes, user flows, and prototypes are created to plan optimal interactive experiences and workflows. UI elements needed are defined.

  • Visual Design

Following established UX direction, UI designers create the actual look-and-feel, layouts, components and styles that will bring the product to life visually.

  • Usability Testing

UX testing with real users is conducted on interactive UI prototypes to refine interactions and catch usability issues. Findings inform iterative design enhancements.

  • Development

UI designs are implemented into actual functional, front-end code and integrated with back-end development.

  • Launch & Monitoring

After launch, usage data and user feedback are monitored to catch any emerging UX issues and continue refining both UI and UX.

Following this workflow ensures UI and UX are developed in parallel, informing each other through ongoing collaboration and testing.

Developing Strong UI and UX Skills

To build great digital products, both UI and UX skills are essential. Here are some ways to develop expertise:

👉 For UI designers:

  • Study visual design principles like typography, color theory, layout, gestalt
  • Practice sketching responsive layouts and wireframes for diverse interfaces
  • Code HTML/CSS to better understand front-end implementation
  • Stay current on UI/design trends, tools and best practices
  • Collaborate with UX designers and researchers to understand user needs

👉 For UX designers:

  • Study psychology principles like motivation, cognition, emotion
  • Learn UX research methodologies (interviews, surveys, usability testing)
  • Analyze usage data to detect patterns and insights
  • Map full customer journeys from need to solution
  • Craft user stories, personas, use cases to inform designs
  • Advocate for users and educate teams on UX principles

As a quick checklist, UI competencies include visual design, interaction design and front-end development. UX competencies span user research, information architecture, interaction design, psychology and analytics.

Of course, building expertise in both UI and UX makes you a very well-rounded and highly-employable digital product designer!

UI vs UX: Key Takeaways

Here are the key points to remember about the relationship between UI and UX:

  • UI focuses on visual design, layouts, components and interactivity
  • UX encompasses holistic user interactions and emotions
  • UI delivers specific screens and interfaces, UX delivers overall experiences
  • UI designers ask “How do we build this?” UX designers ask “Why do users need this?”
  • UI comes to life visually, UX evolves behind-the-scenes iteratively
  • UI and UX work together, informing each other through collaboration, testing and research
  • Mastery of both UI and UX principles is needed to create digital products that “click” instinctively with users

Yes, based on today’s digital landscape, UI and UX excellence are minimum requirements for building products people genuinely want to use. Companies that invest in skillful UI design and thorough UX research will have the best chance of succeeding.