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UX vs. UI Design: What’s the Difference?

Filament Games | Educational Game Developer

Are you considering a career in UX or UI design, but are unsure of the difference between the two, or which one your interests would be best suited for? Maybe you have a product idea and are wondering if all this user-centered design mumbo-jumbo is really necessary. Or perhaps you’ve heard the terms UX and UI, probably from your hip younger cousin during Christmas dinner, but have no idea what either of them mean.

Either way, welcome! Let’s dive in – What the heck is UX/UI design anyway?

First, I’d like to introduce you to a neat little design concept known as form follows function – a 20th-century modernist architectural philosophy cornerstone attributed to Louis Sullivan. Now, you may not have heard of Sullivan, but I bet you have heard of the young protégé to study under him, Wisconsin’s own Frank Lloyd Wright.

Modernists subscribe to the belief that the beauty of an object should come from the intended purpose or functionality, rather than relying on superficial adornment and decoration. Compare and contrast this with earlier architectural styles such as Victorian or Gothic. The law of form and function translates to all aspects of life and design, from the ergonomics of various handheld tools you may use throughout the day to brush your hair or serve a meal, to the layout of your office or school building. In today’s digital landscape, the rule of form and function continues to extend and apply to enjoyable, effective screen-based products like apps, websites, and games. Additionally, it’s a great way to think about the distinction between two important roles in designing such products – UX and UI. Who designs the function, and who designs the form?

User Experience (UX):

UX designers focus on product strategy. There is a marketing and content component, as well as competitor analysis. Product design is usually limited to wireframes and user flows. Because UX designers care about various user’s experience with the product, they also build user personas and empathy maps to put themselves into the shoes of potential consumers. User testing is done to validate or disprove assumptions about the product offerings, content, and overall flow – much iteration should be happening here. UX is heuristics-driven, and doesn’t care about how specific features or pages look just yet.

Put simply: UX deals with the high level purpose, strategy, flow and features of a product. The overall goal of a UX designer is to design a product that is lean and effective, free of bloat from unnecessary features that don’t directly contribute toward end goals or profitability.

User Interaction (UI):

UI designers focus on the visuals and form of the end product. Graphic design and branding principles are applied to create the look and feel. Interaction patterns are employed to design the features identified as effective and necessary during the UX process. Because UI designers care about an individual’s interaction, it’s their job to make the product a joy to use. Layout, colors, interactions, animations and feedback to the user are all priorities of a UI designer.

Put simply: UI is the artistic component of product design. While iterations to the strategy, flow, and prioritized features are sometimes made, such changes are made out of discovered necessity as the bulk of that work has already been completed during the UX process (AKA: form follows function!).

Starting to make some sense? Both roles are necessary to a successful product, and one is not more important than the other! If you’re still confused, perhaps this analogy will help clear things up:

If you imagine a product as a place, UX is a map of the unique environments and structures, with roadways placed in the most efficient way to facilitate movement between one place and another. UI encompasses every aspect of how each of those unique places look, from flora and fauna to architectural styling – all designed in a way that not only makes visual sense to the inhabitants, but also makes them enjoyable spaces to occupy.