UX is not (just) UI

Ryan G. Wilson
6 min readJan 17, 2022

‘UX’ and ‘UI’ are commonly misunderstood and conflated to mean the same practice when they are different practices/roles/titles. UX — User Experience Design is how a product works. UI — User Interface Design is how a product looks.

Confusion

Over the past few years, there has been a lot of confusion around what User Experience Design (UX) and User Interface Design (UI) are, their role in creating products within the industry, and what proper job titles should be. As a UX/Product Designer myself, I spend a lot of time demystifying “What is UX,” advocating how a good UX process can lead to successful products and a positive return on investment.

User Experience (UX) and User Interface (UI) Design are two different practices. When we discuss the work of user-centered design, we should separate the practices into two distinctly separate roles, UX and UI.

“Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. ‘People think it’s this veneer — that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

Steve Jobs, Apple’s C.E.O. New York Times

Adding to the confusion is the misconception from many non-UX practitioners that UX is just making pretty interfaces. Clients hear “designer” in our title and immediately relate it to aesthetic design or graphic design in their minds. If you are one of those people, let me start by telling you that is not the case. Like how an Architect “designs” buildings, they are not choosing decorations for each room; someone else will do that role.

Clarification

To clarify what UX is, it is a process that includes:

  • Understanding the desires of the stakeholders and the needs of the users through research and documentation
  • Developing the flow of the application through an understanding and clarification of the tasks users will perform
  • Recommending features for future versions of the application based on an understanding of how a user will interact with the product
  • Creating and testing functional wireframe layouts and proposed interactions for the application with users
  • Assigning a consistent and aesthetically pleasing look to the components, moving to high fidelity design concepts

The last bullet point is the only part focused on the aesthetic design of the interface. Over my career, I have sometimes called myself a “UX Generalist”; That being someone who can do the entire UX process, make informed recommendations for a functional and successful product, AND is skilled at applying design principles to achieve high-fidelity interface concepts.

Defining the experience should always come before layout or aesthetics

A UX Designer typically works through the entire process of conceiving a product. Duties include: doing the research, understanding the product, testing and iterating with users, and moving from aesthetic wireframes, including taking wireframe concepts to high-fidelity, pixel-perfect interface design.

If a UI Designer is available on a project, their work should start when a UX Designer hands off the product’s research, source of truth, and wireframes. The UI Designer should be familiar with the UX process. However, the UI Designer’s role is to apply the aesthetic to the interface, either from scratch based on client branding, a component library like Tailwind UI, or a company’s design language.

Suppose you are only interested in the UX process:

  • Research
  • Observations
  • Collecting information by running workshops
  • Consolidating knowledge through documentation
  • Ideating products through user flows and journeys
  • Writing user stories, creating interface wireframes
  • Wiring up prototypes
  • And running user testing

In that case, you do not also have to be a good aesthetic designer. The main reason that the roles of UX and UI exist is for specialization. One person should not be a swiss army knife for an entire project.

What’s the big deal if we say “UI/UX”?

Titles or job or practice descriptions should never be listed with a slash between, and if it is, it should never be “UI/UX.”

1. Perception

Putting “UI” first gives the impression that your focus is on the product’s visual design over its function. Unfortunately, UI is not (and should never be) the beginning of the process. Typically interfaces start as wireframes — sketches or basic digital layout concepts — and don’t iterate into high fidelity (made to be prettier) mockups until later in the product design process.

Typically, all projects should start by examining the existing or intended experience, a discovery phase. What clients need most of the time is UX work — identifying user pain points, gap analysis, heuristic reviews, feature timelines, and user flow road mapping. Developing a good UX for the product is the foundation of the product; the veneer can come later. However, no amount of prettying up an application that a user finds difficult or impossible to use will improve the application without fixing the underlying experience problems.

2. Working with clients

Starting the conversation at “UI/UX” leads to the conversation that I’m trying to convey here: UI is a fraction of the entire UX process. Our first task with any client is to understand what stakeholders want, and what users need. If we start the conversation talking about aesthetics, we begin with an uphill battle and get into the weeds of typography, color, and position.

Let me be clear; I am not saying that there is no need for or lower value in the practice of aesthetic design. Those things will need to be discussed but should come after the UX process. I am trying to separate the roles within our field so that clients, job seekers, recruiters, and everyone have a more precise and more manageable time when seeking their intended outcomes.

3. Recruiting

The “UI/UX” title makes recruiting complex for several reasons. The first is that when posting a UX role, you wind up with hundreds of applications from people looking for “UI/UX” roles. Since UI is not the only thing that a UX Designer needs to be good at, weeding through applications takes more time. Time is wasted on the applicants’ as well, applying and checking on a role that is not suited for them.

Where did the title “UI/UX” start?

It is difficult to trace the roots of this title, but it seems to have come from visual social media platforms. Dribbble and Behance have fed into the paradigm that “cool” UI design makes for a good user experience. This principle, called the Aesthetic Usability Effect, is that if something looks aesthetically pleasing, it is easier to use. That, however, is a fallacy. Good products are more than just good-looking. They have been thought through, tested, and refined to streamline users’ interactions and maximize functionality.

Through conversations and interviews with younger UX designers and sifting through hundreds of applications, I think UX boot camp education is partially to blame for emphasizing form over function. If you teach that what it looks like is better than how it functions, the “UI/UX” title is more acceptable — putting design first over the UX process.

What do we do now?

Words have meaning, and we must be clear in referring to things.

There are many different roles for a UX practitioner. So why do none of these titles follow the same naming pattern we see in “UI/UX”?

  • UX Researcher/UX
  • UX Engineer/UX
  • Product Designer/UX
  • UX Designer/UX

These reformatted slashed titles are confusing.

Confused is how I feel about “UI/UX”; its name is backward. I propose that we only title the role of User Interface Designer as a “UI Designer” moving forward. No more slashes. I suggest that we call the portion of the UX process where we apply aesthetic design to a wireframe “UI Design.” No more slashes.

We should stop saying “UX/UI” altogether; UI is a part of UX, no need to call it out. I suggest we drop “User” from both titles while we are at it. Through the process of understanding and creating a product, I would hope that it is a guarantee that you talk to users. Then why repeat “user” in a title when it helps to conflate the two roles. Let’s be bold. Let’s be clear.

Moving forward, let’s reimagine our titles:

  • Experience Specialist
  • Product Architect
  • Product Researcher
  • Content Strategist
  • Interface Designer

--

--

Ryan G. Wilson

Ryan is a seasoned User Experience Generalist. He has been working in user-centered design for over 20 years, has a MS & PhD in HCI & an MFA in Graphic Design.