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What Is This UX Thing Anyway? Part 2

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

The second part of my talk on UX, covering: the differences between UX & UI; the benefits of UX.

Sometimes UX practitioners get asked questions such as these…

“Can you do the UX?”

I think they mean: Can you help us think through the app’s interaction design, structure and navigation?

A misconception is presuming one single person is responsible for successfully conceiving, designing, implementing and validating the user’s experience with a product.

“I loved the UX you did on that project!”

I think they mean: I love the interface you designed.

A misconception is presuming that good UX is just about a good interface. UX Designers are not magicians holding a wand that simply “adds” UX to an interface.

“This dashboard is missing a bit of UX…”

I think they mean: this user interface is hard to use.

A misconception is not understanding UX is an abstract noun, not concrete.

Credit for inspiring this part goes to Fabricio Teixeira .

What you don’t want to do is parachute a UX practitioner in the middle of a project and expecting them to save the day almost immediately, like James Bond…

Roger Moore as James Bond parachuting close-up

So what’s the difference between UX and UI?


Often UX and UI are frequently confused with each other. Whilst they are connected, UI is a part of the wider UX umbrella.

Two circles with UX and UI in the centre of each, and methods surrounding each one.

UX is science-based and takes into account sociology. Whereas UI is more graphically focused, with attention to the buttons on which a user clicks and the paths that follow. UI is the look and feel of a website, its responsiveness and interactivity. A user might view an excellent UI with your product but walk away with a disappointing experience… They may not be able to find what they are looking for, or have to take many steps to achieve a simple request.

Desire Paths

A common way of demonstrating the difference between UX and UI is looking at these examples of ‘desire paths’. You can see how the ‘user’ has forged their own desired route AFTER the design has been completed.

Two photographs side by side showing parks where the paved paths are labelled 'design', and the naturally worn paths in the grass are labelled 'user experience'

I’ve read that a number of educational institutions, including Virginia Tech and the University of California, Berkeley, reportedly waited to see which routes students, faculty and staff would take regularly before deciding where to pave additional pathways across their campuses.

This also demonstrates how important it is to do your research upfront BEFORE any design is implemented.

Before and After UI examples

Here are a couple of examples of design progression with Google. Now one would assume that they just hired a better designer, but as I said before, there's so much more to visual improvements. The research, data etc that has been collected PRIOR to a redesign. And it will never stand still. It will evolve.

Before and after layouts of GMail

Before and after layouts of Google Search

Of course UX is not just UI. It is made up of many other skills depending on how you want to build your UX strategy…

A circular diagram segmented into 8 sections with UX at the centre.

I've taken some information from a Jared Spool article to help illustrate what some of the skill sets below are made up of:

  • User Interface (Visual Design)
    Visual design skills include page layout, form design, colour selection, and icon design (while not directly “visual”, we consider designing for accessibility to fall into this skill set, as it focuses on much the same issues).
  • Interaction Design
    Skills include knowing when to utilise different application structures, such as hub-and-spoke designs versus interview flows; which design elements are best for certain types of information, such as when to use radio buttons versus drop-down menus; and creating design deliverables such as wireframes and design priority descriptions.
  • Information Architecture
    Helps us organise that content in a way that makes it easy for users to hone in to the specific content they’re seeking. Skills include understanding methods for organising information, such as taxonomies, folksonomies, facets, and ontologies; techniques for deriving user hierarchies, such as card sorting; and creating design deliverables, such as site maps.
  • Content Design
    Skills include identifying the style of voice and tone that matches the organisation’s brand, creating persuasive copy that motivates users to explore the design, and clearly stating benefit statements, to help the user understand the value of using new capabilities and functions.
  • User Research
    Skills include identifying user population; techniques for evaluating design ideas, such as usability testing; and passing that information on to rest of the team members, so they can be making informed decisions.
  • Usability testing
    Helps validate and evaluate whether the product’s design goals are met.
  • Accessibility testing
    Helps validate and evaluate whether the product is accessible to ALL users.
  • Data Analysis
    Such as site analytics where direct contact with the end user isn't often possible.

The benefits of UX

The more cohesive and meaningful the user experience, the more customers are willing to engage and form a relationship with a brand, and that ultimately means a contribution to the bottom line. However, user experiences are still frequently inconsistent and frustrating, especially in the B2B “enterprise” space. I can certainly think of some we are all familiar with…

Why is that? Well sometimes it’s because a system is just plain old. It might be packed with a ton of features, but never approached with a UX-mindset… Plus enterprise products can accumulate dense, complicated business logic, and can be costly & time-consuming to overhaul with this level of complexity.

Another reason is that the buyer is not the end user. Normally the IT and procurement departments are responsible for purchasing software on behalf of the enterprise, and they use an IT scorecard to assess potential solutions. However, the scorecard does not include usability, because these are not factors that affect IT or operations directly.

Some UX statistics:

  • Developers spend 50% of their time on rework that is actually avoidable
  • Fixing a problem after release costs 100 times more than fixing during design
  • Mozilla saw a 70% decrease in support calls after spending about 14 weeks focusing on usability and iterative design
    (Nielsen Norman Group)

David Benyon, a professor with over 25 years of experience in the field of HCI, said:

"Being human-centred is an additional cost to any project, so businesses rightly ask whether taking so much time to talk to people, produce prototype designs and so on is worthwhile. The answer is a fundamental ‘yes’."

Four ways in which user-centred design pays off:

  1. Reduce costs
    Investing in UX design upfront can significantly reduce costs down the line. One of the ways you can reduce costs is by identifying what Jared Spool (a globally respected UX practitioner) calls ‘frustration costs’:
    • Lost sales revenue. Sales are going to competitors, the salesforce is discounting to compensate, or customers are taking a long time to sign up.
    • Increased support costs. Call-centre representatives are spending time answering calls that come from the user’s poor experience.
    • Lost productivity costs. Backlogs are requiring more working hours or preventing the organization from being efficient.
    • Wasted development rewrites. Development costs are higher because the team rewrites the same code multiple times.
    • Unused feature development. Development costs for never-used features is a resource that could’ve been used to build something else. Identifying the savings from this different frustration costs should be relatively easy. With close user involvement, products are more likely to meet users’ expectations and requirements.
  2. Safer products
    UX Designers tailor products for people in specific contexts and with specific tasks, thereby reducing the chances of situations with a high risk of human error arising. User-centred design leads to safer products.
  3. Ethical designs
    Putting designers in close contact with users means a deeper sense of empathy emerges. This is essential in creating ethical designs that respect privacy and the quality of life.
  4. Create sustainable businesses
    By focusing on all users of a product, designers can recognise the diversity of cultures and human values through user-centred design – a step in the right direction towards creating sustainable businesses.

Join me for Part 3, where I cover UX fails, and whether UX can save lives...

Read Part 1 where I talk about what I believe UX is, and my UX process.

The banner image is originally a photo by UX Indonesia on Unsplash