User Experience (UX) Designers and User Interface (UI) Designers both work on human-computer interfaces like websites, apps and more, but their roles are very different. There is still a lot of confusion in the industry about what each player brings to the table. If you’re considering a career in UX or UI, how do you know which is a better fit?
The Difference… a Metaphor
Imagine you are building a house from scratch. The UX Designer is like an Architect, and the UI Designer is like an Interior Decorator. They are both concerned with understanding who will use this house (how many people? do they have pets?) and how (is this a home in the city or the countryside? Is it the primary home?). The UX Designer will ask questions to determine which rooms are necessary (needs three bathrooms including one just for guests on the main floor), the flow of rooms, their size and positioning. The UX Designer is why your kitchen entrance – which everyone uses when they come from the parking in back – has a large mudroom for boots, coats, and backpacks.
The UI Designer receives the blueprints from the UX Designer and starts envisioning surfaces and colors. This home needs tile to handle high-traffic areas with lots of snow and mud. They need the same questions answered as the UX Designer, but they use those answers to design how big the breakfast table needs to be and whether the family schedule is on a chalkboard wall or a TV monitor (except remember we’re talking about websites, not houses).
UX Tasks and Deliverables
A UX Designer typically collaborates with a UX Researcher, their product team, and other stakeholders to come up with design strategy. UX Designers are often tasked with pitching concepts to stakeholders, management, and executive teams, so you should have soft skills like being able to articulate a concept, defend your choices, and link design decisions back to business objectives.
They may create design strategy deliverables that support that decision-making process such as:
- Jobs-to-be-done frameworks
- User journeys
- Service blueprints
- Wireframes or low-fidelity prototypes for testing
Where it Gets Complicated
Because there is often a lot of overlap between a UX Designer and other roles on the team, they may conduct user research if there isn’t a dedicated researcher or do high-fidelity designs if there isn’t a dedicated UI Designer. They may be responsible for doing prototyping with users in either wireframe or low-fidelity, gathering feedback from users, and turning that feedback into refinements to the design. If you’re interested in being a UX Designer, it would be smart to also focus on UX Research tasks like user interviews, user shadowing, and recruiting research participants.
UI Tasks and Deliverables
A UI Designer typically collaborates with a UX Designer, the Product Owner, a Scrum Master if their team has one, and the development team to come up with the user interface design and the interaction patterns. They may leverage a design system to increase their efficiency and preserve their sanity (see this article on why your teams should use design systems).
Typical deliverables for a UI Designer would include:
- High-fidelity mockups
- Prototypes (with interactions)
- Redline documents for developers or integration with a service like Zeplin.io
- CSS/HTML or other front-end code
- Contributions to a design system or style guide
Where it Gets Complicated
Because there is often a lot of overlap between a UI Designer and other roles on the team, they may be required to serve as a UX Researcher and conduct A/B tests of their UI to determine which design pattern is more effective. They also may have the skillset of a front-end developer such as working with CSS, HTML, jQuery, and other technologies. A knowledge of front-end technologies isn’t required for a UI Designer, but highly-recommended in order to understand the challenges that your designs might pose for implementation. In some teams, the UI Designer is actually more like a UI Developer or a Front-end Developer.
Increasingly, UX and UI Designers will need to consider accessibility technologies like Jaws, refreshable Braille devices (i.e. braille readers), closed-captioning, haptic feedback, and support for users with hearing or vision impairments in their designs. While this is required knowledge for creating sites and apps in the EU and UK, it really hasn’t been a priority in the US (although it should be). If you’re a practitioner of Universal Design, you already know the value of creating designs that are effortless for every audience (go to my blog post on Universal Design). If you are considering a career in UX, you can really differentiate yourself by making accessibility part of your skillset.