What is UI?
Simply put, user interface (UI) is anything a user may interact with to use a digital product or service. This includes everything from screens and touchscreens, keyboards, sounds, and even lights. To understand the evolution of UI, however, it’s helpful to learn a bit more about its history and how it has evolved into best practices and a profession.
A brief history of the user interface
Back in the 1970’s, if you wanted to use a computer, you had to use the command line interface. The graphical interfaces used today didn’t yet exist commercially. For a computer to work, users needed to communicate via programming language, requiring seemingly infinite lines of code to complete a simple task.
By the 1980’s the first graphical user interface (GUI) was developed by computer scientists at Xerox PARC. With this groundbreaking innovation, users could now interact with their personal computers by visually submitting commands through icons, buttons, menus, and checkboxes.
This shift in technology meant that anyone could use a computer, no coding required, and the personal computer revolution began.
By 1984 Apple Computer released the Macintosh personal computer which included a point and click mouse. The Macintosh was the first commercially successful home computer to use this type of interface.
The accessibility and prevalence of personal—and office—computers meant that interfaces needed to be designed with users in mind. If users couldn’t interact with their computers, they wouldn’t sell. As a result, the UI designer was born.
As with any growing technology, the UI designer’s role has evolved as systems, preferences, expectations, and accessibility has demanded more and more from devices. Now UI designers work not just on computer interfaces, but mobile phones, augmented and virtual reality, and even “invisible” or screenless interfaces (also referred to as zero UI) like voice, gesture, and light.
Today’s UI designer has nearly limitless opportunities to work on websites, mobile apps, wearable technology, and smart home devices, just to name a few. As long as computers continue to be a part of daily life, there will be the need to make the interfaces that enable users of all ages, backgrounds, and technical experience can effectively use.
What is UX?
User experience, or UX, evolved as a result of the improvements to UI. Once there was something for users to interact with, their experience, whether positive, negative, or neutral, changed how users felt about those interactions.
That’s a broad definition that could encompass every possible interaction a person could have with a product or service—not just a digital experience. Some UX professionals have opted for calling the field customer experience, and others have gone a step further to simply refer to the field as experience design.
No matter what it’s called, Norman’s original definition of UX is at the core of every thought experience design—it’s all-encompassing and always centered around the human being it’s interacting with.
To understand what makes an experience a good one, Peter Moreville developed a great visual to highlight what goes into effective UX design.
This ‘usability honeycomb’ has become the foundation for best practices for UX professionals to help guide their efforts across multiple touchpoints with the user, including:
- How they would discover your company’s product
- The sequence of actions they take as they interact with the interface
- The thoughts and feelings that arise as they try to accomplish their task
- The impressions they take away from the interaction as a whole
UX designers are responsible for ensuring that the company delivers a product or service that meets the needs of the customer and allows them to seamlessly achieve their desired outcome.
UX designers work closely with UI designers, UX researchers, marketers, and product teams to understand their users through research and experimentation. They use the insights gained to continually iterate and improve experiences, based on both quantitative and qualitative user research.
What’s the difference between UI and UX?
At the most basic level, UI is made up of all the elements that enable someone to interact with a product or service. UX, on the other hand, is what the individual interacting with that product or service takes away from the entire experience.