User Experience or User Interface: What’s the Difference?

April 25, 2016   |   Jason Lee

There are many design terms thrown about in the IT world that can seem broad and almost indistinguishable from one another.  Two of the more common ones you might come across are User Experience (UX) and User Interface (UI).  At first glance, both seem interchangeable.  Is this actually the case?  If not, what is the difference and why does it matter?  I hope I can help shed some light on this matter.

The user interface is the thing that you use to interact with any machine or system.  It’s easier to understand if we go through an example.  Think about something like the smartphone you carry around with you on a daily basis.  Specifically, let’s think about the weather app you have on it.  Your goal as a user is to know what today’s weather is going to be and the weather app is the system you want to use to accomplish it.  The phone itself is the physical part of the user interface.  You have to pick up the phone and perform some swipe actions on the glass screen to bring up the app.  You see the phone respond to your swipe actions by bringing up the app.  Now let’s consider some of the digital aspects of the user interface.  You see the current weather displayed on the app in large letters with maybe a graphic of the sun obscured by some clouds to indicate it will be partly cloudy.  You then swipe down to see the hourly breakdown or a radar map.  All of these elements form the user interface and all of these elements were carefully designed and developed to help you accomplish your goal.

So, how do you make sure you are designing a great user interface?  That’s where user experience comes in.  User experience is the user’s overall experience of using a product, system or service.  It’s how you feel when you are using a system.  A great user experience will be fast, efficient, error-free and leave you feeling satisfied or even amazed.  A great user experience can ensure that customers keep coming back to your system.  It can help create a base of customers that remain loyal to your brand and help it grow by sharing your product with friends and family.  Part of creating a great user experience is creating a great user interface and to do that you have to understand your target users—their goals, their needs, and their pain points.  You have to think about the context in which it will be used—will your users be on the go?  Will they be at home?  Will they be distracted by other things?  As you design the user interface you have to think about it in the context of user experience.  Will the user be able to accomplish his goal through the user interface effectively?  Will it encourage the user to keep coming back?  Will they want to share it with friends?  Will it delight them?

Let’s think back to our weather app example.  Say you have a couple of different weather apps installed on your phone.  Let’s say that with one app, there are no visuals and it just plainly displays the current weather with text.  It would be simple and no frills and maybe wouldn’t be particularly memorable or useful compared to the dozens of other weather apps available.  Now say you have another weather app and it sends you a notification through your phone before you walk out the door reminding you to bring an umbrella because it’s going to rain today.  Both apps were designed and maybe even have similar user interfaces, but the second app has the opportunity to surprise, delight and ultimately be much more useful.  In short, it has the possibility of providing a much better user experience.

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