The Evolution of the conversation about Design, UI and UX

Sometimes we just need to realise grey areas as they are, grey


This originally started as a long facebook status rant but became a long form blog entry in itself.

A few years (or months ago) the conversation and argument locally was Design vs Art. Now it has moved on to be UX (User Experience) vs UI (User Interface) and its relation to the design process.

Personal experience and belief so far through this evolution (and correct me if I’m wrong dear-more-experienced foreign user experience practitioners). As I see it, the problem is not looking at the difference or the similarities, but the problem is comparing them to begin with. We often try to oversimplify such comparisons by putting it into Venn Diagrams or lists showing how UX-is-not-UI (a sensationalist statement) or pin pointing it to specific people and dividing the work that way. In reality the field of user experience has more to do with the intangible idea of how you think and how you do things which centre around the experiences of your users (ergo. the term user experience) and less with what exactly is it you do or create.

I personally hate these Venn diagrams as they tend to over simplify things. Though they have intersections, the intersections are more blurred in real life than the clearcut circles you see before you.
This specific one is highly oversimplified in separating IA, UI and HCI in far away regions.

On User Interface

If you look at it by its main definition as well (as compared to how people perceive it) a User Interface is any space that a machine and a human interacts with and by this definition, your wireframes, your copy, or to dumb it down, even the very device shape and what it stands on is UI as well. This doesn’t necessarily limit itself to tangible objects, a user interface is anything a user uses to interact with, thereby if you own a shop you can think of the shop keeper and attendant as the interface between your customer and business.

The oversimplification of the definition UI, becomes a problem as well. While some believe that designing a UI, is a technical feat (versus an emotional task as UX is oversimplified as well), because you are designing how and what a person interacts with, aren’t you designing the emotional experience as well? This probably stems from the misconception that a User Interface is only limited to a Graphical User Interface (GUI) but anyone who has studied some computer science would know that GUI is not the end of a UI.

Another extreme oversimplification that actually tries to separate UI work from a UX designers work and make a clear distinction of the two. For shame.

In the end if you are User Interface designer (whether you are designing a graphical user interface or not) of any worth, you are and should be doing User Experience work. So whether or not you call yourself one, if you are designing an interface, a contact point, you are User Experience Designer (by the simple semantic definition that you are designing a part of the User Experience). The question is: Are you being a good one?

Where similarities end

What does separate it however is how the interaction or what happens within this “space” between the human and machine is not the entirety of a users experience. A user would have had to see that machine from somewhere, would have been attracted by its ads, would have heard about it from his friends and in this sense, your marketing, branding and tone is a part of a user’s experience as well, an all to often forgotten or afterthought when it comes to UX and UX cultures as it is often just outsourced to agencies.

Not only what is created but the psyche, and what leads to a user even thinking or needing something that ends up to your use of the product is UX.

The Grey Area

This grey area of where it stands is hard for most people to grasp but maybe the problem isn’t dissecting the grey area but just accepting the grey as it is, grey.

It is in this very nature of a user’s experience that I find the compound word UX-Design in itself becoming more and more of a misnomer or if not a misnomer, misunderstood. A bigger problem we face considering the large facet of UX is trying to find where Design and Designer fits into the schema of things. While a constant belief is the designer is becoming more and more a facilitator, I think the best approach is actually that “everyone designs”. Design in itself is a very big (and according to one of my local design idols Rico Sta. Cruz) a dirty word and adding another commonly misunderstood dirty word to the bunch and vice-versa over complicates things. No, this does not mean everyone calls themselves a designer but instead people should stop talking about it in the context of “designing this” or “designing that” but more about “what if a user does this does that”. Take out the confusing term of “design” for a minute and the exclusivity that the term “designer” puts and start thinking more about a user. That, whether your creating marketing campaigns, writing copy or doodling field boxes, whether you call yourself marketing officer, an interface designer, an engineer or a researcher you will end up doing some UX work in the end and actually probably (specially if you’re writing microcopy) are doing UI work as well.


Further Reading:

UX is not UI by Erik Flowers — One of the best balanced explanations of this topic I’ve seen written.

You’re not a user experience designer if by Whitney Hess — One of the first discussions on this topic on the internet.