Debunking the UX myth. Over again.

What are really the differences between a UI and a UX designer or how to forget vanity titles and use logic instead.  

Catalina Rusu
Jan 29, 2014 · 7 min read

The UX vs UI concern

The difference between UX and UI has come to the general public (read internet geeks) attention a while back when internet made a jump to the 2.0 era, and when the way a website looked started to matter. Only things were not as simple as they seemed. They still aren’t. As the confusion between UX and UI is still happily perpetuated by…. vanity maybe?

Not only the looks of a website became important, but in a world where increasingly almost nothing is simpler than putting some sort of web page online, there has to be done even more than just making a website look good, namely stand out of the crowd, win over potential users and customers’ hearts. So website creators thought offering an experience would do that.

The term Web 2.0 was coined in 1999 by Darcy DiNucci and was popularized by Tim O’Reilly at the O’Reilly Media Web 2.0 conference in late 2004. And I was saying earlier in this post that the need for websites that would stand out from the crowd put on the payroll a new title — the UX designer. By coincidence or not, in 1998, Joe Pine and Jim Gilmore were introducing the concept of Customer Experience through a Harvard Business Review article.

The moment of bewilderment

For some mysterious reason once the UX designer title emerged, you could rarely see companies looking to hire just UI designers. All of a sudden you needed to be a UI/UX designer. Only guess what, you don’t become someone you were not, without being previously trained by formal or informal education, work experience, trial and error, you name it.

Version 1
As a result of the feedback received, I’m publishing Version 2, to better illustrate UX.

I believe this confusing move set the stage for some sort of unexpressed contempt for UI designers inside teams. And here’s where vanity emerged. Since nobody wanted to be despised (the need for social acceptance is in our DNA), UI designers had to automatically define themselves as UX masters, too, so that they don’t fall into disgrace. I witnessed in some of the environments in which I’ve worked, this kind of unexpressed contempt, for some reason I am not aware of, as I find the artful, creative endeavors of such as UIs or graphic designers, or illustrators to be some of the most fulfilling activities on earth (I like drawing illustrations myself).

So, just to set things straight — if you’re looking to make your customers buy your product or use your service, in the today environment, you’ll need both a UX and a UI. But UX does not equal UI.

The roots of Customer Experience

In order to debunk the UX myth, I’m inviting you to look for the roots of what the duties of a UX designer are, in the HBR article I was mentioning earlier. In this way, the distinction UI-UX might become loud and clear.

It’s possible that Pine and Gilmore explained it in a way that was close enough for today creators to grasp it and start applying its principles in their businesses, but it was a concept tackled practically and theoretically before, too. You can check its history on Wikipedia.

So what is it about this article that makes it clear and comprehensible what a UX designer should do?

Let’s start with the metaphor the authors use in order to explain the history of economic progress:

The entire history of economic progress can be recapitulated in the four stage evolution of the birthday cake. As a vestige to the agrarian economy, mothers made birthday cakes from scratch, mixing farm commodities (flour, sugar, eggs and butter) that together cost mere dimes. As the goods-based industrial economy advanced, moms paid a dollar or two to Betty Crocker for premixed ingredients. Later, when the service economy took hold, busy parents ordered cakes from the bakery or grocery store, which, at $10 or $15, cost ten times as much as the packaged ingredients. Now, in the time-starved 1990s, parents neither make the birthday cake nor even throw the party. Instead, they spend $100 or more to “outsource” the entire event to […] some other business that stages a memorable event for the kids — and often throws in the cake for free. Welcome to the emerging experience economy.

For the more visual of you, here’s a diagram depicting these 4 stages.

The progress of Economic Value

Further, Pine and Gilmore argue that staging an experience is not just some element one add in order to be better than a competitor, it is the business itself.

It doesn’t mean though that you need to give up on the services you were providing as a company or on the goods you were producing. Rather,

An experience occurs when a company intentionally uses services as the stage, and goods as props, to engage individual customers in a way that creates a memorable event. Commodities are fungible, goods are tangible, services intangible, and experiences memorable.

Bellow is a quote I have extracted from the article that makes it clear how UI is a part of the UX. In addition, there are marketing, distribution, operational functions that a UX designer needs to figure out:

Excellent design, marketing, and delivery will be every bit as crucial for experiences as they are for goods and services.

A business designer and a design thinker

All the points above lead me to the conclusion that a User/Customer Experience designer is actually the designer of the business itself. The UX designer is ultimately a strategist that tailors a well documented plan to build a solution, and whose way of thinking is deeply rooted in the Design Thinking process the way it was defined and popularized by IDEO.

Design thinking is the collaborative process by which the designer’s sensibilities and methods are employed to match people’s needs with what is technically feasible and a viable business strategy. In short, design thinking converts need into demand. It’s a human-centered approach to problem solving that helps people and organizations become more innovative and creative. (Tim Brown, CEO IDEO)

This doesn’t make automatically a UI designer unable to also be a UX one, but let’s stop assuming that someone trained for one type of job has to be automatically able to do a quite different one, too, only because the titles of these two jobs have so many letters in common.

This distinction, though, doesn’t exonerate the UI designer from the responsibility of being empathic and deeply understanding the needs of the customers he’s building the interface for. But then again, this same responsibility of being customer centered while doing their job is the duty of every member of a team. And Zappos is one company that demonstrates how fruitful such an approach can be.

Experience doesn’t end once the customer leaves the web

I feel obliged to mention that even though all the argumentation in the HBR article introducing the Customer Experience concept is mostly based on offline businesses, the exact same principles, adapted, apply to the online ones, especially now when more extensively your business is not exclusively residing in the virtual world. For now at least, your customers don’t live in the cloud and they take the memorable moments out of interacting with your offering to the real world, which means that the experience you have staged doesn’t end the moment your customer is leaving your software. Plus, software is eating the world.

Customer Experience doesn’t end once the customer leaves your software.

Some of the things UX designers should actually do

It’s impossible to enter here into all the details of the process of designing a memorable experience, as it is a complex one by itself, relying on several other disciplines, but you get the point. UX designers are actually business designers that conceive an entire business in a whole new way, a way that is suitable for the times we’re living and the demands of customers we’re addressing. But they don’t do it by themselves. They do it together with great UI designers, copywriters, developers, marketers, operators, PMs, etc.

I will provide, nonetheless, a non-exhaustive list of what a UX designer should understand, do or oversee. In putting together this list I’ve found inspiration in @Erik_UX’s poster, you can download here.

- Field/immersive Research

- Face to face interviewing (primary research)

- Creating Personas and User Stories

- Product Design

- Interaction Design

- Information Architecture

- Make sure the product/company delivers what it promissed it would deliver (get involved in the branding process up to the point of overseeing it)

- Terminology and metaphors creation

- Content Strategy (it’s different from copywriting)

- Copywriting

- Usability (the ease of use and learnability of a human-made object)

- Put in place processes inside the company that would support the customer experience

- Evangelize the customer centric approach inside the company

- Coordinate brainstorms

- Work tightly with programmers, UI designers, copywriters, marketers, Customer Support

- Make customer behavior analysis (which can imply some social sciences like anthropology, psychology, sociology)

- Create wireframes

- Make Experience Maps

- Follow and optimize KPIs

- And finally glue together a coherent picture of all the pieces at stake

My last address to you

Dear business creators, for the sake of your own business, go against the stream and hire separate people to do your UX and your UI.

    Catalina Rusu

    Written by

    Business designer. Design Thinking practitioner. Previously in the tech seed investment business. Tango dancer. Experimentalist. World citizen.

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