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What Separates User Experience and User Interface Design?

Rudy Mutter
April 26, 2018

Before I became a user experience designer, I worked as a trial lawyer. That might sound like a serious career switch, but to me, the core responsibility of the two roles is similar. Instead of fiercely advocating for my clients, I'm going to bat for a different sort of client: the users of the products and services that the Yeti team tackles.

While my focus is on the digital world, I like to explain UX design in real-world terms. Take the humble doorknob. The user needs to know what the doorknob promises (entrance or exit) and how to use it (twist or push).

Of course, my actual work doesn't involve doorknobs. In fact, I'm only lightly involved in designing products' interfaces, which is more the domain of a user interface designer. UI design is more closely related to graphic design because it's all about ensuring a product's interface is in sync with a client's brand.

As a UX designer, my role is more about holistic product strategy. For example, I recently worked with a successful divorce attorney who wanted to give her physical practice a unique digital presence. To unlock the value of her services — that is, to make California's labyrinthine divorce laws less confusing for someone who's already in a stressful situation — we did a deep dive into her past clients. We learned that her clients are looking for a clear roadmap to the divorce process, so we put together a "divorce navigator" tool that breaks it into easy steps.

Through design and technology, we helped that client showcase the value of her services in a compelling, user-friendly way. That's what UX design is all about.

Do You Need a UX or UI Designer?

Still, UX and UI design are easy to confuse. Before hiring one or the other, consider each role's goals, duties, and misconceptions:

The UX Designer

As a UX designer, my goal is to increase customer satisfaction and loyalty by improving the experience provided by a product. It's an ongoing process of seeking to understand the user so I can respond intelligently to her needs and behaviors through future product iterations.

A UX designer's typical day might involve meeting with clients to scope out goals for upcoming projects, constructing user personas, conducting usability studies, or planning task flows for user interactions. Accomplishing those things involves conducting user research and testing, piecing together user stories, and sketching out rudimentary interfaces. Whether it's a mobile application, an Internet of Things product, or a website, the fundamental work of UX design is the same.

Contrary to popular belief, UX design isn't a one-and-done part of a project. UX professionals work with designers, developers, and clients to understand and meet the user's needs throughout the development process. It's not just about usability, either; a product's user-friendliness is just one facet of the user experience.

The best UX designers are obsessed with research. They're driven to understand their users, from those users' behaviors to their hopes, fears, and frustrations. UX specialists bridge the gap from the user to the design decisions that go into every product.

The UI Designer

UI designers share some big-picture goals with their UX peers, but UI design is squarely focused on the look, interactivity, and responsiveness of the product's interface. They use both graphic and interaction design to translate the client's goals, the user's needs, and the brand's persona into one cohesive interface.

A day in the life of a UI designer might involve developing a visual brand guide for a new client, increasing the fidelity of wireframes, and collaborating with developers on a project's design assets.

While clients sometimes assume that users want as many tools and features as possible, a UI designer knows better than to bloat a product's interface. UI designers are also acutely aware that they aren't their products' users, so they work closely with UX designers to understand who they're designing an interface for.

You might turn to a UI designer if you're just giving your app or website a facelift. Think of a UI designer as the makeup artist: The face beneath remains the same, but the makeup improves its overall look. If you're doing something more extensive — creating a new product or changing an existing product's essential functions — you'll need a UX designer on your side. If you're starting a product from scratch, you'll eventually need to enlist both UX and UI help. Neither role can do the best work without the other's help.

At a glance, you might think UX and UI design seem interchangeable. They do overlap somewhat, but so do the roles of product manager and developer. The product manager keeps the developer on track, and the developer makes sure the managed product works. In other words, without both UX and UI, we'd all be stuck with ugly doorknobs that never actually opened anything.

Rudy Mutter is a CTO + Founding Partner at Yeti. He found his passion for technology as a youth, spending his childhood developing games and coding websites. Rudy now resides in the Yeti Cave where he architects Yeti’s system and heads up project production.

Follow Rudy on Twitter.

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