The UI vs UX Debate

With the rise of the “slashie” job titles, something that has come up on my radar recently is the UI/UX position. Should this really be a combined expertise, or is it actually two separate jobs?

It seems like in recent times, most of the job postings for User Interface (UI) and User Experience (UX) Designers have been condensing the two jobs into one — and, in truth, that might actually be what the employers are looking for if they are, say, a small start-up team of 5 to 10 members.

However, more often than not, the UI/UX — or, worse, UIUX — positions seem to assume that they are one and the same, that it’s just the newest buzzword the industry has dropped on the unsuspecting, and that it is actually just another title for the pretentious graphic designers who cannot “art” to save their lives.

I’m sure we’re all familiar with the “oh so you’re a designer, can you draw me a cute avatar?” guys, and, sadly, these are the ones who are the biggest problems when it comes to ensuring that the newcomers in the industry understand that there is a difference between the two. In fact, graphic design is, in itself, a whole different ball game.

I’ve been in both the positions of being the hiree and the hirer, and the perpetuation of the confusion has made the UI and UX fields — as well as the other fields that tend to be attached to these two — a nightmare. I’ve had employers assuming that all I’m good for is to “art”, and others who tell me to design applications that will force a change of habit in the users.

An analogy I’ve often been using to explain to the layman what UX is, as well as what we should be doing, goes like this -

Imagine, you’ve started a company that sells coffee in a world that prefers tea. You hire a team of designers and marketeers, one of which is a UX designer.
What the current industry seems to think UX is — I sell coffee, so I want people to drink my coffee. You, UX designer, go force feed coffee down people’s throats. Tell them it’s amazing and awesome and they should abandon their tea drinking habits. They force us UX designers into the role of the marketeer, and assume that we’ll be even more effective than the business school marketeers.
The truth is, what a UX designer is good for is to understand the end-users habits, and find ways to slowly change those habits in the least disruptive ways. What we should be allowed to do, is to plan, with the marketeers, how best to introduce coffee to these tea drinkers.
One way in which we might do so — find a blend that smells very much like tea, and tastes similar to tea. Introduce this new drink to the consumers, and slowly entice them to try more classic coffee blends.

The role of the UX designer is to champion for the users — of course, with a bias towards whatever we are designing the UX for — and ensure that the product enhances their experiences and lives, not detract from it. When UX is done well, everyone wins — the users enjoy the product, and the product gains massive market shares.

As for UI, it is very simply, that which the user uses to interact with the product. So a user interface could be a series of buttons on a machine, a keyboard, a mouse, a trackpad, a website, an app, a set of stairs…that is to say, anything. It is a pretty straight-forward thing, and doesn’t necessarily involve a great deal of UX.

Seems like there shouldn’t exist any confusion between the two jobs, doesn’t it?

Now, here’s the tricky part. In order for UI to be exemplary, great care must be taken in considering UX before the design is locked down. And for UX to be exemplary, the UI must be consistent with the UX.

And now I hear you ask — but didn’t you just say that the two are different jobs?

In getting back to that — UX designers need not be good at producing visual aesthetics, but must have strong observational and analytical skills, and have an understanding in behavioural sciences and psychology. Their job is to ensure that the users can adapt to and adopt the product — be it a new building, a device, or an app — easily, with as little guidance as possible.

In contrast, the job of the UI designer is to ensure that the users are able to locate what they need — be it buttons linking to functions, the location of the nearest set of bathrooms, or the light switch — with minimal fuss and confusion. Aesthetically, it just has to be obvious, there is no real requirement here — yet — for the interface to be aesthetically pleasing.

As you may have noticed, so far, nothing has been mentioned about the aesthetics of things — because, frankly, that’s not really part and parcel of either job-scope. However, more often than not, the UI designer will possess graphic design skills — since they tend to be trained in the arts — and would be able to design aesthetically pleasing interfaces without needing the support of a separate graphic designer. Inversely, however, it should never be assumed that the graphic designer will be able to design an exemplary interface. Sure, there will be some who are capable of delivering good UIs which are beautiful when it comes to digital assets, but the interior designer — the equivalent of a graphic designer when it comes to buildings — may not be the best person to build the stairs.

UI design requires a rather different — and much more complicated — skillset than the average graphic designer possesses, although most can be trained to be a good UI designer as well. The same is true for UX — although it does overlap with UI, the skills behind UX is quite different from that of a UI designer.

We’re all kind of the same…but different

So, going back to the analogy, what would be the UI designer’s job? In this case, the UI designer would be the one who designs a packaging for the coffee that resembles the common tea packaging, to help the consumers through with their transition to drinking coffee — through, well, causing confusion.

In essence, both the UI and UX designer will have to be working together quite closely for the best results, but it should not be condensed into a single job. I’m not saying it is impossible, but there would be more clarity if the jobs were kept separate — and there’d be less bottlenecking as well, since the two can be researched and executed concurrently, as long as there is adequate communication between the two teams.

Of course, for the entire process to be complete — as well as to wrap up the analogy — many other people are also involved, but that, is a writeup for another time…