UI vs UX: what's the difference and why it matters

A designer maps out a UX UI flow
(Image credit: Cavan Images via Getty Images)

UI vs UX is a debate that we see crop up regularly, and it seems to cause confusion despite the acres of text that have been written on the issue. The terms still often get used interchangeably, leading many to question whether there's a difference – and if there is, what is it? 

The reality is that UI and UX refer to different concepts but they are so closely intertwined that the difference often gets lost. You certainly can’t have one without the other. You can’t have a digital user experience (UX) without a user interface (UI), and the UI is an integral part of the UX. So is it worth making a distinction between them? And why does it cause such debate?

UI vs UX: what's the difference?

UI vs UX: wireframe on a piece of paper

(Image credit: Picjumbo)

The terms UI and UX both originate in the academic field of human-computer interaction. User experience (UX) is the experience a user has with a product or service. UX design focused on researching and understanding the user and designing their journey using a product or service. There is UX in everything, from our experience of a website to visiting a restaurant or using a tin opener.

A user interface (UI) is the vital medium that allows a user experience to happen, particularly in a digital context. It's now often understood as the aesthetic part of the experience, covering elements like typography, colour, menu bars, and the like. But UI isn't necessarily or exclusively graphical or aesthetic.

Back in the early days, UI involved switches and buttons. It later evolved into graphical UI with keyboards, monitors, and mice as the interface. Nowadays, when we have touch and gesture, there’s a tendency for people to forget that UI can refer to anything that allows us to interact with a digital product or service in order to have a user experience, from physical hardware to voice control and beyond (for some of the latest developments see our guide to the key UX and UI trends for 2022, and to learn more, consider signing up for UX Design Foundations, are essential online UX design course.

We might consider UI as the bridge that gets us to the UX we want to have, or UX as the more conceptual part of the design process and UI as the more tangible part. Should we worry too much about the distinction? Perhaps not. What UX and UI each involve in practice is being redefined all the time, and job posts for UI and UX designers at different companies will often refer to different things. But there are some differences between UI vs UX that are important to consider when it comes to seeking the right job – or recruiting the right person, and that's what we'll look at below.

UI vs UX when looking for a job

A designer mapping out a UI flow

(Image credit: Alvaro Reyes via Unsplash)

It’s important to understand the difference between UX and UI when you’re looking to join a company in a new role, or if you’re looking to add to your team. When searching for a job in UX, you’ll find an array of different roles advertised.

Some want a UX person to do everything from copywriting to coding, while others want a UX/UI person who can make beautiful interfaces, as well as conduct user research and define high-level strategy. A job advert is a window into the soul of the company. You can often ascertain the level of understanding that they have of the field and how important they think the role is just by the advert. 

If you’re looking to contribute to both UX and UI, which I believe you should, you need to seek out roles where research is part of the process; jobs that actively encourage learning and collaboration with other teams, and not just putting a tick in a box to say they now have UX/UI covered. 

Too many roles really just want a UI designer but have an inkling that they need UX, so they add it to the job specs in the hope that the designer will work out the details. If you suspect this to be the case, dig a bit deeper in your interview to uncover the real desire to do UX and ensure the company actually has the time and budget to put towards research. You’ll usually know within minutes what appetite they really have for UX.

UI vs UX when recruiting

If you’re looking to grow your team, it’s important to understand how people describe themselves, and where they sit on the UX/UI debate. Some want to do the blue sky UX thinking without getting involved with the intricacies of UI. On the other side, you have UI designers who purely want to make things look pretty without thinking about the bigger picture. A quick scan through Dribbble shows this in action. Some UI designs are beautiful, but would be pointless and ineffective in the real world. 

If you are building a team, beware of specialists with a narrow view who don’t seem interested in collaboration

I believe that sitting firmly on one side of the fence or the other isn’t a great place to be. In my team, I seek a more rounded view. That’s not to say that every UX person should have fantastic design skills (if you don't a website builder and tailored web hosting service will help for personal projects) and every UI designer should have to do big-picture UX work. However, there should be a strong willingness to collaborate, and an appreciation of other people’s contribution. If you are building a team, beware of specialists with a narrow view who don’t seem interested in collaboration. 

In reality, the only reason that the differences between UX and UI matter are when you are assigning responsibility. They are two different skill areas that are co-dependent on each other. If you’re building a team, you need both skill sets working closely together. Meanwhile, if you’re looking to join a company, make sure that the role you are going for allows you to work closely with others who have different skills. It shouldn’t be a case of UI vs UX, but UI and UX in collaboration. 

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