UX vs UI: key differences every designer should know

A breakdown of UX and UI — two critical components that can make or break a product.

Tomas Laurinavicius
August 15, 2019
Web design

UX and UI are not the same thing, but even folks within the industry perpetuate confusion by using the terms interchangeably. In this article we’ll define UX and UI, their differences, and who is suited to the two professions. If you’re wondering if these design jobs are right for you, read on.

Are you working to create the next best website, application, mobile game, or any other kind of digital products? If you live and breathe the tech world, user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) are terms you’re probably familiar with.

In recent decades, UX and UI design have been growing more popular in the tech industry. Normally paired as UX/UI design, they’ve been prioritized by tech companies aiming to build winning products. UX and UI help solve one of the biggest puzzles when it comes to building lovable products: how can we help people to use a product with ease and pleasure?

Let’s take a look at how these two areas differ and shape a project.

UX and UI defined

You may have heard people use UX and UI interchangeably, but they’re not the same thing.

What is UX design?

User experience is the overall experience a user has with a company’s products or services. Good and bad user experience design is determined by how easy or difficult it is to interact with each element or aspect of a product or service.

Is the user flow smooth, seamless, and intuitive, or is it confusing and unwieldy? Does the button color and position encourage people to click, or make them hesitate? Does adding more detailed steps to the onboarding process add clarity? Does improving the content of a page increase conversion? UX design is responsible for answering questions like these. But how? 

UX design mainly involves research to understand things like customer pain points, potential market gaps, and competitor analysis. Besides focusing on a deep understanding of users and unmet market needs, UX also takes into account the business goals and objectives to build products that align with the company’s visions and missions. UX best practices improve user interactions and perceptions of products and services as desired by the company. 

Peter Morville, designer and information architect, developed the user experience honeycomb to illustrate the 7 facets of user experience design:

7 hexagons in a cluster, each one containing a word: usable, useful, desirable, valuable, findable, credible, accessible.
The user experience honeycomb. Image source: Semantic Studios.


The diagram highlights areas important to a good user experience. It’s a helpful tool for designers and stakeholders to continuously improve products and services. 

UX thinking always traces back to your audience. By understanding the target audience’s goals, UX designers can make good decisions that take an audience where they want to go. 

What is UI design?

User interface design is focused on the look and layout — how each element of the product will look, including buttons, placeholders, text, images, checkboxes, and any visual interface elements people interact with.

UX design determines how the interface works and how people interact with it, and UI design creates an interface’s look and feel. UX is more concerned with conceptual aspects, and UI focuses on a product’s aesthetic aspects — color palettes, button styles, animation, graphics, typography, diagrams, widgets, and many other elements to make the websites, applications, plugins, themes, etc. look neat and clean while still being intuitively functional to the user. 

UX designers conduct market research and analysis to educate themselves about customer’s needs and desires before designing the functionality of a product. UI designers keep themselves updated on graphic patterns and design trends that evolve as customers’ tastes and behavior changes.

In this multi-screen era where mobile devices are prevalent, responsive design has been an integral part of UI design. The ultimate goal of responsive design is to make interfaces viewable on any desktop or mobile device. UI designers optimize interfaces for different devices so products appeal to both desktop and mobile users. Instead of creating different versions for different devices, UI designers create one version that scales content and elements to match any screen size. 

Here’s an example of a landing page that changes the layout to display on different screen sizes:

A blue monocrome image of a wolf howling at the moon. The image is scaled for 6 different screen sizes from the original size down to 500PX.
Image by Webflow.


Essential UI principles help designers build elegant and simple-to-use interactions and human-centered products. Many designers who use Webflow have applied these guidelines to build intuitive and engaging interactions

Key differences between UX and UI 

UX and UI are both critical components that can make or break a product. They work closely together to decide how a product looks and functions. How can we further define UX and UI to capture the underlying differences between the two?

UX searches for solutions and UI determines the look

UX design is mainly concerned with the user’s expectations of a product or service. The ultimate goal of UX is to locate and solve problems customers are struggling with.

Wealthfront’s mobile app does an excellent job of helping customers earn more interest on their cash. Making investment decisions is hard for those with little financial knowledge and professional experience. To tackle this pain point, Wealthfront demystifies the process and automatically executes investment strategies for users at a low cost.

When someone signs up for the first time, the app asks them to fill out the onboarding survey to gather information about their financial position. Based on their personal risk tolerance, the app automatically generates recommendations on how their funds should be invested in a diversified portfolio.


All the information is provided in clear, easily accessible copy. A customer can easily find an explanation about their risk score, compare the relative allocation of their assets, and look up unfamiliar definitions by clicking the hyperlinked terms on the screen. This clever UX helps build trust and confidence in an uncertain venture like investing, and in the app itself.

Putting yourself in the shoes of your audience doesn’t mean UX design neglects to serve the company’s practical business goals. Dropbox’s freemium business model requires the UX team to achieve conversion KPI (key performance indicator). They must employ UX strategies to encourage free accounts to upgrade throughout the product journey. 

Dropbox knows that unpaid accounts will need more storage as they use up free space. But instead of waiting until people reach their limit to prompt an upgrade, Dropbox persistently shows calls to action (CTAs). The CTAs remind people about the restrictions of a free plan and offer the opportunity to enjoy the superior benefits of an upgraded business plan.

 


From a different angle, UI design is responsible for simulating what UX designers engineer behind the scenes. UI creates the product’s interface based on functional requirements and applies design theories, standards, and aesthetics to craft a world-class experience on the screen.

Spacetime was created to help remote teams manage their schedules and coordinate efficiently no matter where they are in the world.

Spacetime dashboard showing 4 coworker's schedules, each represented by a horizontal bar that displays green, blue, or red.


Spacetime uses simple visuals with plenty of white space to enhance clarity. The use of color helps users interpret and compare. Green represents the hours of work a person has completed, blue is what’s left in the day, and red shows unavailability. Great visualization makes it easy to compare team schedules.

UX focuses on the user journey while UI focuses on product snapshots

Your audience is the backbone of UX. Most UX research, testing, and experimentation work focuses on learning and improving the user experience. Behaviors, functional interactions, and emotional reactions throughout the user journey are the foundation of a company’s UX strategies.

What makes customers shy away from a feature? What stops them from scrolling down a page or navigate to another? Why do they hover over a content section without clicking the CTA button? Should we clone a competitor’s winning feature or create something original? UX strategists dig into a customer’s thinking and decision-making process with these types of user-focused questions.

On the other hand, UI designers focus on layout to delight customers and entice them to take desired actions designed by their UX peers. UI designers combine graphic, interaction, motion, and branding design to produce the best possible layout. Their job is to turn conceptual content and layout into an attractive, intuitive, and responsive interface for users. 

Should we use 3-dimensional illustration to sharpen the contrast and add depth and realism? Will brutalism help us stand out? UI designers contemplate these things to maximize both the aesthetics and efficiency of an interface design. 

UX and UI complement each other

UX and UI design are completely different. Comparing them may imply that they can work independently without affecting each other, but that’s not the case. UX and UI design both serve the best possible user experience. UX defines where an audience wants to go and UI helps them get there.

Get your design and engineering teams on the same page with a prototyping tool that bridges the design-development gap. Image source: Webflow.

UX and UI are equally important. No matter how beautiful the UI is, without UX, users would find the product useless and their underlying needs would not be addressed. And without an effective and pleasing UI design, even great UX would become obtuse. UX and UI design are equally essential in the making of winning products and deciding the internal mechanism of the back end and the external look of the front end.

UX and UI designers have different roles

As the nature of UX and UI are different, designers in each profession do different tasks in their daily work.

UX designers at work

UX designers focus on creating a product’s structure, flow, and functionality. First and foremost, they work closely with marketers, business analysts, and product teams to understand user needs.

After defining the target audience and their goals, UX designers analyze market data, compare benchmarks, and conduct user testing and competitor analysis to create solutions that enhance the user experience at every touchpoint. 

After conducting research and analysis, UX designers will sketch wireframes to illustrate elements, content, and user interactions. They’ll then create prototypes from wireframes by adding functional information architecture.

After discussing and handling over the prototypes to UI designers, UX designers will stay on and continue to consult on the project.

UI designers at work

Together with UX designers, UI designers discuss the structure and look of a project. Following the visual identity, style guides, and UI kits, UI designers create high-fidelity layouts with responsive guidelines, and then define animations and transitions.

To help developers understand the project, UI designers create comprehensive style and reference guides. During the development phase, UI designers work closely with the developers to test and give feedback about the product until the final version is completed.

As UX designers tend to be in charge of the overall outcome of the project. They’ll closely coordinate with and supervise the work of UI designers and developers to make sure the final products are exactly what their audience needs. 

Building prototypes in Webflow will help get your design and engineering teams on the same page and streamline the design-development process. Prototyping in Webflow lets the design team use HTML and CSS without learning how to code. And developers can build interfaces based on fully functional prototypes, made with clean, semantic code.

Is a blended role of a UX/UI designer recommended?

While it’s easy to see how these two disciplines can overlap, each role plays an equally vital part in the process of building successful products and should not be combined. Both jobs take time and effort and deserve dedicated specialists.

In the best interest of both the users and the company — and to increase a project’s chances of success — UX and UI designers should be hired separately.

UX and UI live in harmony

Though serving the same business goals, UX and UI require different thinking processes and strengths. UX design is based on an audience’s wants and needs, while UI design is based on the research, recommendations, and requirements of the UX designer. 

UX deliverables include research results, wireframes, and prototypes. UI deliverables include mockups, sketches, layouts, and graphics. UX designers tend to be strong critical and strategic thinkers, while UI designers specialize in the visual side of things. 

UX is a science and UI is an art form. If you want to pursue UX or UI, it’s important to understand their subtle differences and which role best suits your strengths and weaknesses.

Tomas Laurinavicius

I’m a lifestyle entrepreneur and blogger from Lithuania helping aspiring entrepreneurs build businesses and live better. Follow me @tomaslau.

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