UI & UX: The Toaster Oven Problem

A toaster oven is a good idea in theory. One kitchen appliance to make toast and cook things. It’s a space saver.

But a toaster oven doesn’t make toast as well as a true toaster. It takes longer to toast and the bread usually toasts unevenly. And the oven part… well you can’t really cook things in it. It’s pretty small. And not nearly as powerful as actual ovens. It basically can warm things up, though this takes longer than another kitchen appliance: a microwave.

A toaster oven isn’t the best tool for making toast. Nor is it the best tool for baking. It doesn’t do any one thing particularly well. But it’s a space saver.

Which brings me to UI and UX. UI — short for User Interface design — focuses on the visual design of a screen. It is the digital “thing” that a user will interact with. UX — short for User Experience design — focuses on the experience in total for a user. It is about how to make completing a task easier, more intuitive for a user. These are not the same areas of focus.

This is how Golden Krishna, author of The Best Interface is No Interface, recently described this difference on the Intercom podcast:

UX slash [sic] UI roles… they aren’t the same thing. When you’re a UI designer you’re there to compose a great screen and when you’re a UX designer you’re there to understand and solve problems. When you conflate the two you make it so people try to solve problems with screens.

Krishna’s exactly right. UI and UX look to solve different problems using different approaches. UI is singularly attentive to a single space (the screen) and so must confine its solutions to that arena. UX is obsessed with the user and so may consider the screen, but also think beyond, wherever the research and insights take them (environment, flow, objectives, etc). How one approaches a problem will dictate the solution. Or to use an analogy — when you’re holding a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.

Can a single designer inhabit both roles? As one who’s interviewed a lot of designers — UI, UX, and UI/UX — I am dubious. More and more I see designers marketing themselves as being both — the holistic UI/UX designer. And there’s a certain logic to it. A UI designer necessarily must consider the UX of the screen when working. It seems on the surface a harmless stretch to suggest one has UX ability as well. Certainly you look more appealing on paper and also open yourself up to more potential opportunities.

In interviewing such candidates, I find the a few perfunctory questions about process and how the designer addressed a particular project usually reveals immediately what side of the fence they truly belong. And what I find usually is they have passible ability in one area, better than average in the other. Never have I found a candidate to be exceptional in one area, and ok in the other.

A truly great UI designer states unequivocally that they specialize in User Interface design. He/she leads with their greatest strength. The exceptional UX designer does the same. It is the mediocre designer that claims mastery of both fields.

The toaster oven problem.

Companies deserve criticism for this issue as well. Job boards are filled with postings for UI/UX designers. Generally, these illustrate the company’s misunderstanding of the two roles. But hey, 1 salary for two roles! Ultimately both roles receive short shrift for the sake of expediency.

Now, it is certainly true that, while rare, there are a few exceptionally talented individuals who can serve both masters: UI and UX. But I have not seen a company yet willing to pay what that unique combination of talent is truly worth. Companies devalue the worth of designers in this manner.


Let’s recognize that UI and UX are different things. They are not skills that exist on the same spectrum. Rather, they intersect. These roles should be properly maintained by two separate designers.

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