January 31, 2013
UX is Not UI
We recently came across an article by Erik Flowers which makes a useful distinction between two terms that are usually conflated and confused: user experience (UX) design and user interface (UI) design. Erik has even created a handy site offering print-ready PDFs of a two-column comparison which lists all the activities that are properly, in an ideal world, part of the former, meaning part of UX design. Twenty-three activities are listed, of which two: interface design and visual design are, according to Erik, what most people think of when talking about UX design. The rest, as he sees it, are mostly essential precursors to a good user interface design effort, but they often not given the attention they deserve. Amongst these are field research, creation of personas, creation of user tests, gathering and organizing statistics, feature writing, information architecture, taxonomy creation, working tightly with programmers, design culture evangelism, and so on.
Erik’s point is that many entrepreneurs, clients, product managers, etc don’t often stop to consider all that needs to happen for good UI design to happen, and that good UI design is not the goal but a kind of natural follow-on to effective thinking about a problem: thinking that is informed by considering how work actually gets done, thinking that considers the views of multiple stakeholders, most of whom are not concerned with design at all, thinking that leads to solutions that are relevant, parsimonious, elegant, adaptable, and robust.
In Erik’s words, “UX is the intangible design of a strategy that brings us to a solution.” Put another way, UX is all about how to approach a problem, whereas UI expresses, in limited terms, a part of the solution that good multi-stakeholder problem-solving generates. UI is about layout and flow and widgets and content and transitions and giving the user the tools he needs as the need arises. UX is about how to get there, how to know what parts of the original problem can’t be addressed by the UI alone, and how to keep asking the right questions so the UI evolves with the way real people actually end up using the product.