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What is User Interface Design?

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What is User Interface Design? What does it entail? What does it mean?

Amazon Alexa
Simple UI might be better, but only if that simplicity translates to a better experience. Photo by Piotr Cichosz

It’s not uncommon, even within product and design circles, to confuse or conflate the terms. They are different enough that we should define UI separately., What isn’t in question is that both are critical components of great design – a good UI design paired with a poor UX design is still poor design.

It’s possible that when we ask this question there’s some overlap between user interface and user experience. This is unavoidable, but possibly confusing so let’s start with the distinctions between UX and UI.

Alex Fedorov

User Experience Design

Wikipedia defines UX Design as “the process of enhancing customer satisfaction and loyalty by improving the usability, ease of use, and pleasure provided in the interaction between the customer and the product.” This makes a lot of sense, but it also makes it unclear what the interface is.

UX Design is the sum and end result of multiple activities focused on optimizing the experience and maximizing the utility of the product for the user. These activities can include user discovery (user research, interviews and testing), information architecture (the structure and hierarchy), wireframing, and prototyping. UX is about the total experience, which may or may not have anything to do with the screen or interface.

Michael Connors

User Interface Design

UI Design generally refers to the visual elements of a product or experience – the look and feel, the presentation and the interactivity of a product. It’s the interface that the user interacts with and (hopefully) makes the experience aesthetically pleasing.

For most product designers it’s the series of screens, pages, and visual elements that the user sees — like buttons and icons — that you use to interact with a device or product. We’d argue that UI is not restricted to visual cues but also to the non-visual cues and interactions that influence a user’s interactive decisions or choices.

The goal of the UI should be to make the interaction as simple and efficient as possible – to make it easy for the user to accomplish their goals, and solve their problems.

Geordie Kaytes

In some cases, intelligent UI design connects the beauty with the experience. As Buckminster Fuller so elegantly observed,When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty but when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.” It crafts a common visual language and hierarchy that enhances how users engage with your product.

Let’s use a car for an example – specifically the climate control system. Whether the climate control system allows the driver to control their temperature separately from the passenger is an example of UX Design. How the driver/passenger interacts with and controls the cabin climate (via touch screen or knobs and buttons) refers to the UI. The user experience is the outcome of fiddling with those UI controls. Is it hotter, colder, just right?

Mercedes climate control knobs
A physical knob and button climate control UI on an old Mercedes.
Mercedes AMG climate control
A touch screen climate control UI on a new Mercedes AMG.

What’s the Right Amount of UI

It’s important to note that the improvements in technology that most of us take for granted still hasn’t reached everyone and all industries. There are still many sectors that are either struggling to catch up or haven’t felt enough of a motivation (or pressure) to change their current way of solving problems. This is a critical point. Improving UI for the sake of improving it is pointless because it doesn’t necessarily make the UX better.

Jonathan Barker

The lesson here is that sometimes paper and pen are better than spreadsheets or mobile apps for capturing information or delivering the ideal experience. Don’t assume that technology makes everything easier.

Simple UI might appear to be better, but only if that simplicity translates to a better experience. While it is true that the best solution is often discovered through simplification, it’s also true that oversimplification can lead to user anxiety and confusion. Striking a balance is the work of a UI and UX team working together. Testing and assimilating feedback is an endless loop of refining the user experience.

Google search UI
Google manages to deliver an excellent UX with an extremely simple UI.

Humans do not require a physical interface to interact with their environments. Audio, olfactory and visual cues are often intangible and subtle. Sometimes the best UI is no UI. If you can deliver a product or experience that allows your user to accomplish their task (or their job) without that extra screen, step, or button, then it’s possible that you’ve added value without adding complexity. Siri and Alexa stand as current examples of non-visual UI designs that enable users to access value.

Richard Banfield

What’s your definition of UX and UI?

Author Heath Umbach

Heath is an avid cyclist and runner who brings athletic rigor to everything he touches. With over 15 years of experience building and marketing digital products, he has a deep passion for solving our clients’ greatest challenges.

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