Knowing the Difference Between UX and UI Could Save Your Business


Think of the process of building digital products as a pyramid with three tiers. User experience (UX) design is the base of the pyramid. UX gives your team the foundation for what you are building. Then add the technical layer: how it works. Finally, the top of the pyramid is the user interface (UI), the layer that the user interacts with—typically the visual design on-screen but, increasingly, this will also include interfacing with machines through voice (or VUI).

All three layers are required for a successful digital product. But the order is critical. Here’s why:

The UX process informs the technical layer and the UI. As many product teams have discovered, without the foundation of UX, investing in design and development is futile. Teams get caught up chasing fads and features, reskinning interfaces without addressing underlying UX issues, and ultimately fail to provide what all digital products need in order to survive: value.

Increasingly, digital products compete on the customer experience and the insights and innovation that UX research provides. Teams that focus only on the UI or the underlying technology at the expense of UX will lose to their competitors. As a result, understanding how UX, technology, and UI work together is vital to the success of digital products.

UX: The Foundation of Any Digital Product

UX refers to the user’s perspective and feelings using a digital product. UX design is a cyclical process of aligning organizational goals with user goals. While the UX process often produces deliverables such as personas, user journeys, and task flows for a shared understanding among team members, its true purpose is to answer the questions your team needs to improve and evolve your digital product.

The user experience design process always involves the end user. If the process does not involve the end user, it’s not truly UX design. That doesn’t mean that we ask end users to design for us. Instead, we recommend observing users perform realistic tasks. Depending on where you are in the process, this could be tasks performed offline, online, or a combination. By assigning goals and metrics to the aspects of the user experience you seek to measure, you can improve the digital product with each cycle by addressing challenges and uncovering opportunities.

The Technical Layer

The middle building block in creating digital products, sandwiched between UX and UI, is the technical layer. UX seeps into the technical layer as the UX and technical teams work together to come up with viable solutions to user challenges and address opportunities to provide added value. When UX is the foundation, the technology team is armed to create seamless, powerful solutions to user challenges, while still aligning with business goals.

In contrast, digital products that are technology-driven tend to be cumbersome, pseudo-solutions that get in the way of users. For example, products that force users to complete unnatural or unnecessary steps because it’s easier for a computer are technology-driven.

UI: What the User Interacts With

The user interface requires the UX process in order to be successful—but that shouldn’t overshadow its importance. Because users have instant, and often subconscious, reactions to interfaces, getting them right is essential. Users have the same gut reactions to user interfaces as they do when they meet someone for the first time. Sensory inputs (what the person is wearing, how they walk and shake hands, how they speak) are processed—again, without any deep thinking on the users’ end—and swift judgements are made.

But, without the UX process, teams must make a lot of assumptions about how the interface should look and act. And, because it’s rooted in the aesthetic level, the interface is unlikely to align user goals with business goals, meaning it’s providing little value to anyone.

UX must be the foundation of any successful digital product. Technology is the bridge layer that is leveraged to solve user problems while aligning with business goals. By combining UX insights and technology solutions, product teams can develop a UI to seamlessly communicate and interact with the end user.

Interested in providing a UX foundation for your team? Our UX Strategy for Successful Digital Products workshop helps your team integrate a user experience design process into existing processes that may. have relied too heavily on technology or the user interface.