Published on 08 Nov 2017 · 11 min read
At the most basic level, the user interface (UI) is the series of screens, pages, and visual elements—like buttons and icons—that enable a person to interact with a product or service. User experience (UX), on the other hand, is the internal experience that a person has as they interact with every aspect of a company’s products and services.
It’s common for people to use these terms interchangeably, or sometimes incorrectly. Today we will talk about what is UI, what is UX, and what’s the difference between them.
Simply put, user interface (UI) is anything a user may interact with to use a digital product or service. This includes everything from screens and touchscreens, keyboards, sounds, and even lights. To understand the evolution of UI, however, it’s helpful to learn a bit more about its history and how it has evolved into best practices and a profession.
Back in the 1970’s, if you wanted to use a computer, you had to use the command line interface. The graphical interfaces used today didn’t yet exist commercially. For a computer to work, users needed to communicate via programming language, requiring seemingly infinite lines of code to complete a simple task.
By the 1980’s the first graphical user interface (GUI) was developed by computer scientists at Xerox PARC. With this groundbreaking innovation, users could now interact with their personal computers by visually submitting commands through icons, buttons, menus, and checkboxes.
This shift in technology meant that anyone could use a computer, no coding required, and the personal computer revolution began.
By 1984 Apple Computer released the Macintosh personal computer which included a point and click mouse. The Macintosh was the first commercially successful home computer to use this type of interface.
The accessibility and prevalence of personal—and office—computers meant that interfaces needed to be designed with users in mind. If users couldn’t interact with their computers, they wouldn’t sell. As a result, the UI designer was born.
As with any growing technology, the UI designer’s role has evolved as systems, preferences, expectations, and accessibility has demanded more and more from devices. Now UI designers work not just on computer interfaces, but mobile phones, augmented and virtual reality, and even “invisible” or screenless interfaces (also referred to as zero UI) like voice, gesture, and light.
Today’s UI designer has nearly limitless opportunities to work on websites, mobile apps, wearable technology, and smart home devices, just to name a few. As long as computers continue to be a part of daily life, there will be the need to make the interfaces that enable users of all ages, backgrounds, and technical experience can effectively use.
User experience, or UX, evolved as a result of the improvements to UI. Once there was something for users to interact with, their experience, whether positive, negative, or neutral, changed how users felt about those interactions.
Cognitive scientist Don Norman is credited with coining the term, “user experience” back in the early 1990’s when he worked at Apple and defines it as follows:
‘User experience’ encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products.
To understand what makes an experience a good one, Peter Moreville developed a great visual to highlight what goes into effective UX design.
This ‘usability honeycomb’ has become the foundation for best practices for UX professionals to help guide their efforts across multiple touchpoints with the user, including:
UX designers are responsible for ensuring that the company delivers a product or service that meets the needs of the customer and allows them to seamlessly achieve their desired outcome.
In this article we are focusing on the digital user experience and the elements necessary to consider when designing and developing a digital product, such as websites, mobile apps or software:
All websites, no matter what company they belong to, want to attract viewers and users. To do so, and to build an audience who wish to return to the page, they must ensure that they create a positive impression. This momentary impression that users have of the site will evolve; if they can easily use the site to achieve what they need without confusion there is a much higher chance they will return back to it. Good usability comes from easy-to-navigate links to a clear layout; all of which works together to give the user a positive experience.
Access to the content is important but it’s crucial that, once they’ve successfully navigated their way around your website, users find the content of it useful. Keeping websites clear, concise and to the point effectively allows them to achieve their aims whilst using your webpage. If this isn’t done websites can lose value and easily alters the relationship between business and user.
It’s not surprising that most technology users dislike adverts, but sadly they are inevitable in our 21st century world. This means companies should be taking special thought when considering which advertisements they want to use on their websites, always considering how they can ensure their users get the best experience. The best online marketing campaigns are ones that align with the target audience of the website and are relevant to them, they should interrupt the flow of the website as little as possible and, ethically, should fit with the core values of the company that is being represented.
We can umbrella all these concepts together to summarise how crucial it is that users enjoy their experience on your website. Providing people with an enjoyable experience, ensuring they can successfully achieve what they set out to and providing them with a nicely set up website all works towards making them happy. A happy customer base leaves a positive impression; meaning you can count on them coming back for more and recommending your site/business to others.
UX designers work closely with UI designers, UX researchers, marketers, and product teams to understand their users through research and experimentation. They use the insights gained to continually iterate and improve experiences, based on both quantitative and qualitative user research.
At the most basic level, UI is made up of all the elements that enable someone to interact with a product or service. UX, on the other hand, is what the individual interacting with that product or service takes away from the entire experience.
Don Norman and Jakob Nielsen summed it up nicely when they said:
It’s important to distinguish the total user experience from the user interface (UI), even though the UI is obviously an extremely important part of the design. As an example, consider a website with movie reviews. Even if the UI for finding a film is perfect, the UX will be poor for a user who wants information about a small independent release if the underlying database only contains movies from the major studios.
Take Google, for example. Its famously spartan interface highlights how a great experience doesn’t require bells and whistles. By focusing on the user, Google knows that when they come to the site, they’re after one thing: information. And they want it quickly.
The fact that ‘google’ is a widely accepted verb shows how well the company delivers on that experience—and expectation. Just about anything a person has ever wanted to know can be accessed in the blink of an eye and few other search engines survive today.
Now imagine that every time you searched on Google, it took 15 seconds to get a result—you’d no longer be able to instantly get an answer to your question. Even if the interface stayed the same, your experience with Google would be dramatically different.
As UX started to become a household term—at least at a corporate level—it wasn’t uncommon to hear folks mix up the terms or use them interchangeably. Although the field of user experience design will no doubt continue to evolve, it’s important to understand the vital role each profession plays in the wider realm of human-centered design.
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