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User Interface vs. User Experience: Sliding Into the Differences

You’ve been thinking about a career in the emerging field of User Experience, and as you read through job listings and requirements, a questions hits you.  What is the difference between a User Experience Engineer and a User Interface Designer?

You’ve hit one of the core problems with this emerging career field. I would say most people don’t know or fully understand what UX is. Many employers have heard UX as a buzzword, and are just beginning to recognize UX as an important aspect of the design and development process. As a result, UX is often confused with UI, and many people taking on UX roles end up doing more UI work than anything else.

The infinite wisdom of Inigo Montoya extends to the world of User Experience.
The infinite wisdom of Inigo Montoya extends to the world of User Experience.

So what is the difference between the two?

The basic answer I go with is “User Interface is the controls you use when working with a website/piece of software/etc. User Experience is how you feel about using those controls.”

My favorite way to explain what UX is, and where it fits in the process is to imagine a building that constantly has so many people on the top floor and coming up the staircase that it’s difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to use the stairs to go back down again. It’s a huge problem, and the fire marshall is threatening to close down all access unless a way to get people off the top floor is installed soon. An interior design consultant is brought in, and has quite a few different options to select from that might get people from the top to bottom floors: stairs, elevators, bungee cords, a sheer drop with a big inflatable cushion at the bottom, etc. After some consideration, the consultant might come up with the idea of a slide being the most efficient way to get from top to bottom floors.

Who knew a beautiful view could be a major fire hazard?
Who knew a beautiful view could be a major fire hazard?

To get as many people off the top floor of the building, it will need to be as close to the best possible slide for its particular use. Now the building’s architect has some work to do. Where does the slide go? In the corner, in the middle of the floor, by the biggest window, or even starting at the window, leading outside the building?

This was either a terrible or an awesome idea.
This was either a terrible or an awesome idea.

The architect will likely base their decision by coordinating with a number of different individuals and groups. The architect might need to review with the building owner about where to put the slide so that it doesn’t interfere with using space on the bottom floor. The architect might also have a conversation with people on the top floor of the building about how they’d feel about different slides in different places in the building. The architect will likely do some reading to see if any other building are using slides to get people from floor to floor, and what’s making those slides successful. They may even visit a building down the street with a slide of its own to experience for themselves what they like or don’t like about that slide (competitive product research).

Who says research can't be fun?
Who says research can’t be fun?

Once they have all of the information they need to make the final decision about where to put the slide, they’ll probably work with the interior design consultant to make sure that the color and sizing of the slide work with the existing color scheme in both the top and bottom floors.

By the time the construction crew is on-site and ready to build the slide, the architect will have blueprints and specific instructions for the construction team on how the slide should be constructed.  The architect may need to be available to answer questions about the slide’s construction and materials.

The architect will also need to test the slide, however, both before and after it’s in use to answer a number of different real-world questions.  Is the slide dangerous to use?   Is it as fun and efficient as the architect expected?  Do people use it as expected, or are people attempting to scramble up the slide to get to the second floor?  Depending on the results of the testing, the architect may need to tweak the design slightly (or perhaps even scrap and remove the slide if it doesn’t work well at all).

My work here is done.
My work here is done.

We can extend this metaphor to actual web product development. The interior design consultant is a UI designer: it’s their job to understand the different options about what different elements are available for any particular situation (in this case, choosing between another staircase, a the big cushion at the bottom of a sheer drop, or a slide) and to make initial recommendations on the controller.

The UX engineer is the architect, doing the research on the chosen controller and deciding best location for that controller in context of the current project (the house itself), giving the basic instructions for implementation, and then testing the product both during its development and after it’s finished to make sure it’s reaching the needs of real-world users.

Additionally, the architect and interior designer collaborate at different points in the project, just as UI and UX teams might interact. There may even be some crossover between the two functions, but in the end, there is a distinct line where the UI designer’s work ends and the UX engineer’s work begins.

With all of this in mind, it’s easy to see how UX and UI get mixed and confused with one another. Hopefully I’ve built a good description of how these two vital functions differ from one another.

Pun totally intended.

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