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I’ll never forget, around 6 months into my tech career, when I finally admitted that I still had no idea what the difference was between UX and UI. Product stakeholders throw around these terms as if they’re interchangeable and while they’re related, they’re certainly not the same thing.

Let me spare you the confusion: UX refers to how users experience and interact with an interface, while UI refers to how the interface looks and what visual elements it includes. Doing good product work depends on understanding each of these in detail, and knowing when to utilize each.

Let’s dive in.

What Is UX?

UX stands for user experience, and it refers to what the experience is like when people use the product. Is it smooth and intuitive? Can users find what they need and do what they want to do? When designers or product managers are working on UX, they are:

  • Understanding target user needs, and creating features and user flows that meet those needs.
  • Using low-fidelity wireframes to test different flows and understanding which ones best meet end-user needs.
  • Checking their digital products for any usability issues to make the experience faster, easier, or better, and addressing any accessibility issues.
  • Understanding how users interact with their product holistically, and how to engineer a user’s interaction with the product to be more aligned with their needs.

A UX designer’s job is all about how users interact with a product in the real world and their various touchpoints in that experience. For example, the checkout experience on an ecommerce site or the sign-up flow for a web app. It’s about aligning the product with user needs in a way that is smooth, efficient, and hopefully even enjoyable.

What Is UI?

UI stands for user interface, and it refers to the hands-on aspects of interaction design. Where UX gives insight into what the experience should be like for users, UI is how that experience is created in a product interface. Buttons, calls-to-action, drop-down menus, banners, animations, and responsive design are all UI elements. When designers are working on UI, they are:

  • Using UX insights and design feedback to create a digital design that’s the optimal interface to create the best experience for users.
  • Prototyping and testing interfaces and visual elements for front-end development with UX-informed features and flows.
  • Crafting style guides, design systems, and templates to streamline the consistent development of intuitive UI elements.
  • Prioritizing new features and UI elements based on factors like importance, impact, and effort (sometimes using an idea management process)

UI is one part of the UX design process, and goes hand-in-hand with effective UX web development. Oftentimes, bad UX comes down to ineffective UI elements.

UX vs UI: Differences & Similarities

Ok, so now we’re getting somewhere, right? UX is the research and knowledge of how users interact with an interface, and UI is the tangible part of a product—it’s the interface itself. Let’s break down some more specific key differences and similarities:

PurposeUnderstand user needs to create an intuitive, efficient, and delightful product.Use tangible, visible elements to create the optimal user experience.Both work together to achieve an ideal product experience for the user.
ResponsibilitiesUX researchWireframingUsability testingUnderstanding UX insightsPrototypingCreating visual elementsBoth are committed to understanding the user and creating an experience that matches their needs, motivations, and behaviors.
TechniquesUser researchLow-fidelity experimentation, like creating wireframesHigh-fidelity experimentation, like prototypingHigh-quality, final design Both include techniques that are iterative—they’re trying to see what works and add incremental improvements.
ToolsUser research and UX design platformsFigma or other design toolsWireframing toolsAdobe Suite, Figma or other design toolsPrototyping toolsIdea management softwareDesign platforms are common tools for both UX and UI pros. It’s important for each specialist’s tech to integrate with the other’s for better collaboration.
KPIsMetrics that help us understand ease of use like drop-off or abandonment rates in a flowVarious other business metrics, like conversionsMetrics that help us understand ease of use like drop-off or abandonment rates in a flowVarious other business metrics, like conversionsUX and UI generally have shared goals and KPIs. They work together to achieve the best experience and generally, the effectiveness of each is measured in tandem.

UX vs. UI: Differences

Here, I’ll elaborate on the differences highlighted in the table above.

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1. The purpose of UX is understanding, while the purpose of UI is creation

Though both UX and UI require in-depth knowledge of users, working on UX is creating that understanding behind the scenes of the product. Meanwhile, UI is the actual design that facilitates the optimal experience.

Want to understand better? Open up any app on your phone. What you see is the UI. What you do, why you do it, and what’s like is the UX.

2. The responsibilities of a UX specialist are research-based, while the responsibilities of a UI designer are deliverable-based

UX pros spend their days doing all types of user research like user interviews, usability studies, and user journey mapping. They then use the output of that work to do some low-fidelity designs, often called wireframes, that enable them to communicate the ideal aspects of features and flows to the designers who will ultimately create the UI.

UI pros are taking information and wireframes from UX and drilling into the design details like fonts and typography, interactive elements, and pixel-perfect graphic design. They’re then creating prototypes of different design concepts to test with users and ultimately pinpoint the optimal visual design.

3. UX techniques are investigative, and UI techniques are tangible

UX work relies on user research methodology and low-fidelity design that is never intended to be put in front of users. It’s a key part of the creative process of outlining user personas, addressing information architecture, features, and flows that align best with user needs.

UI design takes the user experience design and translates it into tangible deliverables. It relies on the know-how of actually designing, moving, and perfecting pixels in design software to create what users see.

Both of these are crucial when it comes to overall product design, whether it’s web design or mobile apps that we’re talking about.

4. UX tools are research-oriented, while UI tools facilitate creation

UX professionals may come from a design background and have proficiency in design tools, but UX work is less likely to take place using advanced design software. UX work typically involves using tools that help track and analyze user behavior. User interface design, on the other hand, generally takes place in design tools like the Adobe Suite and Figma.

5. UX and UI specialists may track KPIs in different ways

While UX and UI designers may share key performance indicators and track the same metrics, they’re likely to observe them through a different lens. A UI designer might focus on what behaviors users have taken, while a UX specialist might explore the motivations behind those behaviors.

Similarities Between UX and UI

Now, let’s dig deeper into the similarities between UX and UI outlined in the table.

1. UX and UI are both crucial components of product design

Any product that you encounter was created with both UX and UI. The UX and UI professionals worked together to ideate and create an experience that is aligned with user needs, behaviors, and motivations. UX/UI design specialists had discussions on how to make that experience intuitive, and they each used their unique research and design skills to optimize the user experience as their primary purpose.

2. Both UX and UI involve taking time to understand users

Doing user research to understand the target audience falls in the realm of UX, but those responsible for the UI also have to understand the resulting insights. These are both crucial parts of the design process, and all of this knowledge comprises one of the most important design principles in design thinking: that no one involved in the design process can escape it!

3. Both UX and UI rely heavily on iteration and experimentation

Though UXers are working with low-fi designs and UI designers are working with high-fidelity prototypes, they are both likely to generate many iterations of concepts and designs before their final output. Both UX and UI rely on a creative process whereby they test out different concepts and keep iterating until they reach what they think is optimal.

4. Both UX and UI have concrete outputs that rely on design software

We’ve talked a lot about how UX output is often low-fidelity wireframes or mockups, and UI output is detailed, final, user-facing design. Interestingly, you’re likely to find both UXers and UI designers using design software.

Creating low-fidelity wireframes is still visual output, and is made pretty simple with tools like Figma. At the same time, tools like Figma and the Adobe Suite offer all of the nuanced features needed to create user-facing designs.

5. UX and UI are united in their objectives and KPIs

However a company chooses to measure the quality of its product, it almost always uses a combination of user behavior and business metrics. These KPIs are a function of UX and UI working together, and represent the collaborative success of the two domains.

Is UX Or UI More Important?

By now, you know that this is a trick question: one is pretty useless without the other. Without the investigative research done in UX, the UI is unlikely to meet user needs and be intuitive enough to reach the team’s KPIs. Without UI, there is nothing tangible for a user to interact with, no matter how much a team understands the target audience.

In product development, UX is generally your starting point, and UI is the problem-solving. After all, you can’t solve a problem for your users until you understand their pain points. From there, you’re going to need a UI that’s intuitive for users, and delights people while they’re using it. It has to work well and feel good. And as you move on, you’ll know from your KPIs that you’re not always getting it right. UX will try to understand why, and the UI will reflect those learnings.

For Example

If you’re in the beginning stages of creating a wedding planning platform, you’ll need to learn anything and everything about what people planning weddings need. From there, you can build a product that supports people while they’re planning an important occasion.

UX and UI are a perfect marriage (sorrynotsorry), working together to create an overall user experience that’s aligned with what users need and want, which is often called user-centered design. The success of the product development process is always dependent on user-centered design, and that can’t happen without the skill sets and superpowers of both good UX and good UI.

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By Cori Widen

Cori Widen currently leads the UX Research team at Lightricks. She worked in the tech industry for 10 years in various product marketing roles before honing in on her passion for understanding the user and transitioning to research.