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UI vs. UX: A Concise Explanation

What is the difference between UX and UI design?

Steve Jobs once said:

Design is not just what it looks like… Design is how it works.

The man’s right, folks. Design is both of those things. Specifically:

  • UI design is how software looks
  • UX design is how software works

That’s it. That’s all there is to it.

Wait. You wanted to hear more?

What UX & UI Designers Actually Do

A UI designer focuses on visual things like colors, typography, spacing, and brand. A UX designer focuses on usability issues, like making sure the software is simple, intuitive, and fulfills the user’s needs.

I happen to be both a UX and a UI designer. In any given day, I will focus on both visual and usability issues for my clients. But, the activities I perform in each role differ.

A UX designer will…

  • Talk to potential users to try and deeply understand exactly the problems of theirs that can be solved with software
  • Create low-fidelity wireframes of the app or website
  • Usability test the software to find where users get tripped up
low-fidelity wireframes
Low-fidelity wireframes, created in my capacity as a UX designer.

A UI designer, on the other hand, will…

  • Adjust colors to be exaaaaactly right
  • Pick which fonts will be used in the app
  • Make a button 2px shorter, so it’s consistent with other buttons in the app
high-fidelity mockups
High-fidelity mockups, created in my capacity as a UI designer.

UX and UI Design Are Sister Disciplines

As I say in Learn UI Design, UX and UI are sister disciplines. They are two sides of the same coin. Sure, they take very different skills, but they’re both about deciding what a user should see on their screen. In fact, some issues are tough to classify as either UX or UI. For instance, who should determine how much space is between various controls on a screen? A UX designer will have an opinion, because spatial closeness implies logical closeness. But a UI designer will also have an opinion, depending on if the vibe of the app is light and airy (add more space!) or tight and data-heavy (keep things compact!).

One final note: these terms are still terribly misused by folks within the software industry. Even folks who call themselves UX or UI designers often mean completely different things by it. So it’s always best to check exactly what someone means if you’re hiring.

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