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

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UI vs UX

When understanding UI vs. UX design, there’s a crucial distinction between the two. While both involve design decisions influencing a user’s feelings about an interface, one is broader and the other is narrower.

UI and UX design are also universal regarding interfaces for nearly any product with real humans as operators, which is especially true of software, apps, and websites. If you want to pursue work in UI and UX design as a graphic designer, it’s essential to understand the core differences between the two design jobs. Here’s a quick overview of what you need to know.

Consider it your first step into a deep understanding of user experience.

What is UX Design?

UX design, or User Experience design, is a human-first approach to product design and is the broader of the categories. Regarding UX design, you can apply your skills to physical and digital products. For UX designers, the focus is, on the whole, an experience with a product from beginning to end.

A UX designer will focus on design solutions for problem areas in designing user interfaces for a whole product. A UX designer might, for example, focus on how the aesthetics of software pair with the physical experience of a product. Interactive elements, for example, need to maintain a visual identity while conveying function.

UX Design

A key term to remember with UX design is “human-first” design. This more significant user interface idea can be credited to Don Norman, behavioral scientist and co-founder of the Neilson Norman Group Design Consultancy in the late 1990s. Understanding users and tailoring the experience to them is essential for product designers.

The primary goal of user experience designers is to make a pleasant user experience that flows well, which can provide plenty of work for a visual designer in many cases. A graphic designer has a vital role in the user journey.

What is UI Design?

With UI design or User Interface design, the emphasis is on the aesthetics of an experience or product. The UI design process emphasizes appealing to users’ aesthetics, which is achieved in many ways. With UI design, the focus is on digital interfaces that feature user interaction. This can be achieved through visual design principles.

UI Design

A UI designer will focus on design solutions for visual touchpoints or the elements of a graphical user interface that display information and promote interaction. The critical thing to remember here is an emphasis on graphic design. For example, a website, app, or ATM interface are great examples of UI design. How might graphics best adapt to individual screens? How might color palettes work across devices, and how can a style guide be uniformly applied?

UI design utilizes combinations of typography, color palettes, buttons, and other visual elements to communicate the purpose of items in the interface and make them appealing in the end-user’s interaction. UI design serves to guide the user in the most pleasant way possible. This is also a significant component of product experiences.

The Differences Between UI and UX

For many of us, UI and UX design ideas can appear confusing; after all, there’s only a single-letter difference between the terms. However, there is a fundamental difference between the two that, once understood, should clear everything up.

While UX design can have physical characteristics to consider, UI design focuses entirely on digital interfaces. The UX designer focuses on a product’s overall feel and experience or the interaction design. In contrast, the UI designer focuses on the look and function, such as color schemes and screen sizes.

The macro-level view comes from the UX design considerations, whereas the micro-level perspective leads to UI design. These two concepts can be seen in different forms of human-computer interaction, such as mobile devices.

How UI and UX Work Together

Several examples are worth exploring how UI and UX work together in the design industry. Perhaps a perfect distillation of how UI and UX work together originates with the Apple iPod. Take, for example, the iPod Classic. The MP3 player was designed around a unique, ring-like touch interface called the click-wheel and screen.


The iPod was a snappy and robust example of responsive design, designed around the individual and pleasing input. The user experience was pleasurable because of the intuitive nature of the click-wheel. The user interface was designed to emphasize this with responsiveness and “click” based on the movement of a finger or thumb to the right or left of the ring.

The process of this collaboration between these two design disciplines is also something that can be shown in something like the iPod.

  • The first step is research and defining the need; this is part of the UX designer’s work. There was a need for an efficient, portable MP3 player with an intuitive input method. The design concepts would develop from this.
  • From there, UX designers work with UI designers as design teams to brainstorm concepts, arriving at a wheel shape, one of the most intuitive concepts ever developed by humankind. Engineering teams then put these concepts together and introduce usability testing. The testing is done with rough prototypes.
  • This is followed by prototyping and iteration by the product team, where the feel (UX) meets the design (UI) to build a good, final product. User testing is essential here to map user behavior to understand where the UI and UX fail to mesh.

This effort leads to finished products that can spur different design trends. But what about strictly digital interfaces, such as apps and websites? How might UI and UX be applied and interplay?

Can’t Have UI Without UX, or UX Without UI

An app or a website has many display factors worth accounting for to ensure they are suitable to the device they are displayed. This software needs to function intuitively to be successful, look good across any form factors, and carry pleasing aesthetics. The UX must feel good across an iPhone, iPad, Chrome browser, or Android smartphone. Part of that comes from a UI responsive to different form factors and can maintain a pleasing look on any device.

You cannot have UX without UI and UI without UX. One design theory influences the other, no matter the circumstances. A user’s experience can be ruined through weak design, just as a beautiful design can fall flat if the surrounding features prevent it from being used effectively.

This means that a UX designer and UI designer must work together, though kudos to any designer who can do both. Accounting for UX and UI designing is quite a robust skill set.

Final Thoughts on UI vs. UX Design

While we initially presented this topic as a UI vs. UX design exploration, it becomes evident that these two design disciplines have much in common and are better together than apart. Their goals are the same as a design process: create a user experience that looks and performs well. It is just that their approaches vary in specifics. If anything, each discipline benefits the other resulting in more impressive designs and functionality. 

Understanding these paths can result in a rewarding career, all while keeping users in mind.

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