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What’s the Difference Between a User Experience (UX) Designer and a User Interface (UI) Designer?

It’s a common misconception that a user experience designer is the same as a user interface designer. In all honesty, they’re easy to mixup. After all, while their end deliverables are different, they commonly work collaboratively on design problems to arrive at a professional, polished result. So what’s the difference between a user experience designer (commonly referred to as UX) and a user interface designer (commonly referred to as UI)? 

Let’s examine further:

Training

A user experience designer was once called an information architect. If you search job boards for current listings, you’ll find that the information architect title has all but disappeared from digital companies. That’s not to say it doesn’t exist elsewhere, such as in print shops or architectural firms. Today, user experience designers come from varied backgrounds ranging from copywriting, fine arts and visual design, to computer science. If you scan through LinkedIn for user experience designers and browse their work and education, you’ll find they entered into user experience through uncommon backgrounds. 

Over the past 3-5 years, universities have gotten on the user experience bandwagon and have started to formalize it into a discipline called HCI, which stands for Human Computer Interaction. The theory and material taught in HCI courses has been updated and modernized, however, the basis of human computer interaction design theory dates back to the beginning of computers. The best programs today can be found at the Institute of Design at Stanford and the Media Lab at MIT, however many other schools, such as Georgia Institute of Technology, NYU Tisch, DePaul in Chicago and Carnegie Mellon have fantastic offerings. 

In order to become a successful user experience designer, you need to have demonstrable knowledge in three fields: visual design, computer science and business. 

Let’s break that down further. What you need to know:

Visual Design, including: compositional theory, typography, color, movement and information hierarchy.

Computer Science, including: front end development, backend development and database theory.

Business, including: product management, marketing, advertising, and social media.

Now, let’s be honest – those are some huge categories to grasp. While you do not need to know everything (it’s not possible), you do need to continuously teach yourself. If you’re involved in a career that is centered around the Internet, you must constantly learn and grow. Know a lot about copywriting for the web? Great, what about social media marketing? What about principles of successful information architecture? What about modern mobile app development technologies such as Ruby motion? You get the idea. 

User interface designers usually come from predictable backgrounds such as fine arts or graphic design, but their overall skill set has been honed to pair perfectly with the intricacies of designing for a digital medium. A uniquely designed interface (not bootstrap or a WordPress out-of-the-box theme) can take a significantly large amount of time to create. Why is that? If you think about the complexities of working in a small space, while having to balance color, information hierarchy, composition, gradients, strokes, textures, etc. It can become alarmingly convoluted. A good user interface designer has a finely tuned eye that can discern the subtle differences between elements on a page and in order to correct any inconsistencies.

When a user lands on a webpage that they can easily operate, all while saying “This is a nice looking page!”. Well, that’s the mark of a good designer. 

Skills & Responsibilities: 

Depending on the company, a user experience designer may need to be a jack of all trades. It’s not uncommon to see a user experience designer jump in at the beginning of the project lifecycle, where the problem set and project definition is vague. Or after the project requirements document has been finalized and wireframes and functional annotations need to be created.

What responsibilities does a user experience designer have in each phase of a project? 

At the beginning, when the project is more conceptual:

  • Surveying
  • Focus Group Administration
  • Mood Boards
  • Preference Interviews
  • Card Sorting
  • Customer Feedback and Testing
  • Analytics 
  • Non-Directed Interview
  • Contexture Interview
  • Mental Modeling
  • Experience Mapping
  • Competitive Analysis 

While the project is underway:

  • Wireframing
  • Diagraming
  • System Mapping
  • User Testing / Usability Testing 

After the project has launched:

  • User Testing / Usability Testing
  • A/B Testing
  • And more wireframing as a result of test results and fine-tuning.

What about a User Interface Designer?

Well, they should be involved in all of the above tasks in order to gain a solid understanding of the project and end-user expectations. However, from a deliverables standpoint, a user interface designer really needs to turn on the heat when the project gets going and he or she needs to pump out designs. As said earlier, developing a successful UI, user interface, takes time and thought.

Software Used

A user experience designer needs an array of tools and should be evaluating every tool available for their ability to improve the design. Many user experience activities do not require a computer at all, such as card sorting or in-person interviews. However, when it comes down to wireframing and prototyping there are a number of tools to use. 

What is the most common software used by User Experience Designers?

  1. Omnigraffle
  2. Visio
  3. Axure
  4. Sketch 

What is the most common software used by User Interface Designers?

  1. Photoshop
  2. Sketch with InVision
  3. Illustrator 

What can you hope to earn as a User Experience Designer or User Interface Designer?

User Experience Designer Salary 

Junior:

According to Payscale.com: $72,283

Senior:

According to Payscale.com $99,067

User Interface Designer Salary

Junior (mobile interface designer):

According to Payscale.com: $65,000 

Senior:

According to Glassdoor.com $101,203

How do I become a User Experience or User Interface designer?

Becoming a user experience or user interface designer can be a complicated task. But let’s face it, earning a career takes time, dedication and hard work. Designing is no different. However, the most important element to any designer’s success is this: the portfolio. If you don’t have a successful portfolio that shows solid, professional and well-thought-out work, well good luck. It’s not going to happen. What’s the best part though? You can build a portfolio even if you’re not a practicing designer. For instance, if you’re currently working a full or part time job doing something other than design, you can easily take on freelance projects at night and during the weekends to build your work. Once you get a few sites together, show them to other designers and get their feedback. Critique is the most important part of being a designer, so be ready with thick skin.

As said previously, becoming a successful digital professional requires that you constantly learn and designers are very commonly self taught. Yes, some have Graphic Design degrees and others have Human Computer Interaction degrees, but do you want to know a secret? Most designers are self taught, incredibly obsessed, hard-working people who are infatuated with design and the Internet. That’s it. So if you don’t have passion, if you’re not ready to spend hours per day on the computer, well you might as well stop now because it’s not going to happen. Sorry. 

Here’s what you do:

  1. Build a portfolio through taking on freelance web design projects. Everyone needs a site, and most will accept a free site if you ask them. Start with friends and family.
  2. When building your portfolio, be sure to follow the correct project flow (UX into UI into Development) to make sure that you will end up with the best, most professional design possible, with all deliverables needed to showcase your work.
  3. Get feedback. Talk to other designers on sites like Dribble and get their feedback. Learn from them.
  4. Build a site. Leverage easy-to-operate content management systems such as WordPress or Squarespace. Squarespace is even better for beginners because it does not require knowledge of installing files via FTP or connecting to a MYSQL database.
  5. Keep building and learning. Never stop.

There it is. Your pathway to a successful 6 figure career. Sound easy? You’re nuts. But is it fun and rewarding? Absolutely. Apple comes out with new innovative products every year, and what do they all have in common? They have a user interface. Who designs those interfaces? People like you. So get at it.