What’s the difference between UI and UX? UX Question #80

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Kelly from Memphis, Tennessee, asks: Are UI and UX the same thing?

I love that question. Thanks for asking, Kelly. This is UX Question number 80 and I am Ben Judy.

What’s the difference between UI and UX? This is an old discussion. I remember a design conference presentation I delivered circa 2006. I did a five minute lightning talk answering this very question, and I was simply adding my voice to a long-running conversation.

There’s a cartoon I see pop up on Linkedin every few months. One person says, “I’m a UI/UX designer.” And the other person says, “Oh, well, I’m an astronaut / fisherman.” Obviously, making the point that these are two entirely different things. And the point is, you can call yourself both, but you shouldn’t conflate them.

I think the more nuanced answer is, user interface design is part of UX design.

Back in episode 40 I said that user interface design (to include low fidelity wireframing and high fidelity prototyping) is an essential UX design skill. But there are several other, essential UX skills that are not UI design.

So the formula is, all UI design is UX design. But all UX design is not UI design.

There is definitely such a thing as designing a user experience that doesn’t have a user interface, or that has a seemingly invisible interface. This isn’t a new idea. I remember seeing TV commercials in the 1980’s for “the clapper.” This was a simple, home device where you clapped twice to turn the lights on or off in your home. That was smart home automation long before most people had even heard of The Internet.

And keep in mind that user interfaces are not always visual. Voice UI’s and natural language processors and gesture recognition are become increasingly common means of interaction. Voice and text and gestures are still processed through a computerized interfaces of a kind, just not visual or touch interfaces.

There are various reasons why people confuse or conflate UI and UX. When you don’t really understand something, you sometimes just toss out a word salad of terminology you’ve heard, hoping that the real experts will understand what you mean. And sometimes we talk about the thing that is most visible, the thing you can see, as shorthand for a broader category of concerns.

So is it wrong to say, “I’m a UI/UX designer”? Well, no, not if you literally mean you practice both user interface design and user experience design. And most of us do. It’s like, how often have you cooked spaghetti without spaghetti sauce? The noodles are actually different from the sauce, but that nuance is lost on hungry people who just want to eat.

Keep asking your questions about UX. Next time, I’ll answer the question: What is design thinking?

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