UI vs. UX

What’s the difference between UI and UX?

The term UI and UX are sometimes thrown around interchangeably and while both are important designers and organizations should be thinking about them differently.

The User Interface or UI of a product is the part that you interact with. It could be a dial, a button, a handle, or other parts of the product that are manipulated. UI design is in most products we use, both intentionally and sometimes unintentionally.

The user interface in software typically relates to any on-screen element, including text, labels and buttons. These items communicate information and interactions. In physical products, the interface will also include things that you manipulate with your hands, or feet.

In computers the interface was originally called the graphical user interface (GUI) but now it’s commonly just called the UI.

Great user interfaces tend to convey “affordances.” An affordance is a clue as to how you should interact with an object. For example, the Macbook has a divet that shows you where to put your finger to more easily open it, the Airpods have this too. Buttons have shape and shadow to make them look pressable. These affordances make it easier to understand how objects should be manipulated

When affordances try to convey an interaction by mimicking real-world physical objects, that’s called, “Skumorphism.”
– The original iPad notes app, looking like a physical notepad
– The Trashcan, mimicking the look and interactions of throwing something away.
– The save icon mimicking the days gone by of disks.

All this stuff go into user interface design. There’s a ton to consider in terms of how to design a screen to be simple, friendly, intuitive, and have the right amount of information, features, and functionality.

UX or User Experience Design is often confused with UI but it’s really centered on the end-to-end experience of using a product or service. The interface is one part of the journey but ultimately most people don’t want to interact with an interface, they are looking to get something done.

If the product is a ketchup bottle, then the user interface is the cap, the bottle itself, the protective sheet that you have to remember to peel off to under the cap to get any ketchup out.

The user experience includes those elements but it’s considerations go beyond that. What does it look like on store shelves? How does it taste? How does it smell? Are fries or burgers more satisfying with ketchup? What ingredients are people going to look for on the back to avoid? Will the ketchup produce ketchup pee? Will the bottle make a sound when you squeeze it? Does too much or too little come out? Will I use this bottle at home or at a restaurant? Will someone at a restaurant try to refill the bottle with some other brand of ketchup? Will I know how to recycle the bottle?

All of these scenarios are experiences that someone may have with the product. These experiences may overlap with the actual interface but they are distinct. The interface is the ketchup bottle, and the experience is everything that happens, before, after, or during that may make for a good or bad experience.

Many companies that have software as part of their products have dedicated user interface designers but it’s equally important to have people thinking about the total user experience.

Thinking through the end-to-end user experience will help you uncover gaps in service delivery, customer service, and generally WHY people are using your products and HOW they go about using them. Great UI and UX go hand-in-hand in making better products that you and I can use and enjoy using every day.


Apple User Experience

Apple has struggled on the UX design front over the last few years. You can see some of the problems in both the hardware and the software across a number of products but I’m going to go deep on just one feature that you use every day the lock screen…

The iPhone lock screen and it’s overall design was part of the original launch of the iPhone, but the simplicity of the original design has eroded over the years.

The original design was:

  • Hard to trigger by accident
  • Simple and intuitive (even for a baby)
  • Could be done with one hand and taking the phone out your pocket couldn’t cause an accidental gesture
  • There was nothing to confuse you

As the iPhone grew in popularity there was a lot of interest in having more functionality quickly available. The iPhone was the most popular camera and quick access to the camera was added to the lock screen in iOS 6.

All the way through iOS 8, there were two primary gestures… Swipe across to unlock and a new gesture to swipe up to get the camera. The camera was hard to trigger by accident and gave a hint if you tapped it.

In iOS 10 things started to get more complicated.

  • The home button had become a fingerprint reader
  • The home screen was now the primary way to view notifications and act on them.
  • Apple was also experimenting with HandOff allowing you to launch or hand off applications from your computer to your phone.

That brings us to iOS 12 & 13. With the elimination of the home button, FaceID, 3D Touch, Control Center, Widgets and Notification Management… the functionality of the home screen got confusing and the original simplicity and vision were lost.

Apple introduced gestures from every edge of the screen and even used 3D-Touch to overload additional actions. The obvious on-screen gestures were gone and in it’s place were a large collection of ways to access secondary functionality.

  • The time is harder to read – thinner font
  • No on-screen instruction or obvious visual area to drag to unlock.
  • Camera no-longer bounces to show the direction of camera bounce/hint.
  • If you drag up to show notifications, you can’t drag down to hide them.
  • If you drag right you end up in widgets (unused by most people)
  • If you drag to the left you get locked in the camera area with no obvious way to get out

None of these things is a show-stopper but combined they clutter the simplicity of the original design. While the new design has more features it’s not necessarily better for the majority of people. While it adds features that 5-10% of folks may care about it complicates the experience for the other 90%.

When Apple originally released the iPhone they also released the Human Interface Guidelines (HIG). Over the years the HIG has gotten diluted and much of the advice on simplicity, legibility, texture, and usability has been diluted or removed.

As Apple continues to grow and evolve, I’m hoping they re-focus on the simplicity and elegance of the user experience. While there’s no doubt that Apple has been successful from a financial perspective the quality of their products have been declining. I’m hoping Apple’s able to re-focus on the core experiences and bring back the simplicity and delight that made the first generations of the device so magical.