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The definitions of the terms UI and UX sound surprisingly simple: The former stands for User Interface, and the latter for User Experience. Ever since these two terms have been used for the first time, however, there has been a lot of confusion and debate over exactly what each one means, and how they are related to each other.
In what follows we will try to clear up this confusion.
UI: User Interface
About fifty years ago if one wanted to use a computer your only option was to use the command-line interface. There was simply no commercially available graphical interfaces like the one we have today. To give commands to a computer, the user had to ‘communicate’ with it through a programming language. To complete even the simplest of tasks, one had to use what seemed like endless lines of code.
This started to change in the 1980s when computer experts at Xerox PARC developed the first GUI or Graphical User Interface. This was a groundbreaking development in human/computer interaction: for the first time ever people could interact with a personal computer by visually transmitting commands via menus, buttons, icons, and checkboxes. That was the start of today’s highly advanced user interfaces.
To put it simply, therefore, a User Interface or UI is everything people use to interact with a computer or another digital product or service. This does not only include the keyboard, but also screens, touchscreens, mouses, mousepads, voice recognition software, and even groundbreaking new interfaces that use gestures, sound, and light.
UX: User Experience
After a few years, as User Interfaces started to change and improve, the term UX or User Experience was eventually born. This describes the total experience the user has, and how he or she feels about this interaction with a company, product, or service.
In the 1990s, while working at Apple, cognitive scientist Don Norman helped to create a definition for the term. During the UX conference in San Francisco, he explained in an interview that UX is about the total user experience with a company, its products, and its services. This, he added, includes everything – from how the user views customer service, to how easy it is to unpack the product, start using it, and finally his or her experience with the physical user interface or UI.
Looking at it in this way, the responsibility of UX designers is to ensure that the firm delivers a product that meets the requirements of the buyer, i.e. it allows him or her to effortlessly achieve the outcome they desire.
This is why there is normally very close interaction between UX designers and UI designers, as well as with product teams, marketers, and UX researchers. The UX designers then use the insights gained from these interactions to improve the total customer experience.
What are the differences between UI and UX?
Given the definitions of the two terms above this question might be a bit misleading. It’s somewhat like asking what is the difference between a laptop and a keyboard.
In this analogy, the UI represents those parts of the laptop that the user needs to interact with the device, e.g. the keyboard, mouse, screen, etc. The UX includes not only the laptop and all its technical components, but also its price, the way it is packaged and marketed, its after-sales support, and even its status value.
The laptop might be technically perfect, with a state of the art UI, but if the after-sales service sucks or the company is for some reason regarded as environmentally irresponsible, it might not sell.
Perhaps UX researcher Chinwe Obi summarised it best when she said that UI refers specifically to the way in which users (physically) interact with a product or service, while UX includes this, plus all the other experiences they have with that product or service.
The bottom line
This means that a bad UI will by definition negatively impact the UX. But even a world-class UI might not be able to counteract the negative impact of a bad UX.