Are you sure you know the difference between UX and UI design?

There’s been a lot of blurring of lines, confusion of definitions and land-grabbing going on in UX and UI, design and architecture, and it’s creating problems for people who really don’t need more than the ones they’re currently trying to solve.

(This is this first part of a two-part blog)

It all comes down to a very simple issue – UI designers don’t get paid as much.

Oh, comparatively they do well in terms of national averages, but in the software, application and web solutions industry they’re one of the lower paid roles.

This means that a few years ago a number of enterprising and upwardly mobile interface designers decided to transition into UX architecture to increase their levels of recompense. All well and good – new skills and capabilities should be rewarded as a properly trained individual adds more value to the projects they work on.

However, the self-improving UI designers’ pay increases were heard about by others who hadn’t done the extra work to up-skill and broaden their horizons, but thought “I want a slice of that”. As a result, they started calling themselves UX designers; after all, they knew how to make sure designers could find the right prompts, how interactions on screen would look best and give the most information, and how to help users step through forms in the most user-friendly, least boring way, right?

Consequently their message to recruiters became “Hey, I’m a UX designer” and because most people in recruitment aren’t actually drawn from the same talent pool as the one they’re recruiting for, they thought “OK, UX designers must be the same as UX architects”. The result? The job market became confused, as did employers, and a spate of the wrong people being put into the wrong jobs started to happen. This led to serious deficiencies in UX work quality because these UX designers didn’t understand what they were actually supposed to be doing, missing a huge amount of vital work and churning out interfaces just as before.

The consequences of getting it wrong

This had a knock-on effect. Projects needing UX architects were employing UX designers and thinking “Hey, this UX stuff is just designing the screens. Why are we doing this unnecessary UX exercise, paying so much for these guys when we can just employ UI designers?” in the belief  and “Hey, if UX is just churning out screen designs then this stuff is easy and can be done really quickly – these UX Architect guys are gilding the lily. So let’s get them out and employ UX designers because they’re cheaper and faster”.

The evolution of apps and website design took a lurch sideways. Projects were being delivered that were not solving the problems they were intended to. They may have looked great – nice graphics, pretty animations when you click a button – but not really improving things. Doing the UX work wasn’t delivering the expected results. To the project stakeholders, this meant that UX was an unnecessary expense – you could just get business analysts to brief interface designers, surely?

Now this probably sounds like a personal polemic. And to some extent it is. 

I started out in UX when we were alternately referred to (erroneously) as information architects and/or as UX architects. And throughout my career I’ve seen a lot of great talent join the burgeoning ranks of the UX community, people who have migrated from UI design, project management, business analysis, strategy roles and others via taking courses and effectively apprenticing with experienced UX practitioners. I’ve also seen a lot of unscrupulous or self-deluded UI designers and graphic designers claim to be UX designers without even bothering to pick up a copy of Steve Krug’s book Don’t Make Me Think (an essential primer in my view), and actually learning what UX is all about.

That’s done a lot of damage to organisations who really needed proper UX practitioners yet didn’t get them. They’ve lost time, lost goodwill, and lost money all because they’ve been misled into a false understanding of what UX is. Recruitment companies haven’t  helped the matter – their misunderstanding has led some to send candidates to a client who equally didn’t understand what UX is, and some doing so while cynically chasing an increased fee because UX architects were better paid, and “UX designers are the same,” (a genuine quote from a recruiter), so they’re worth more to the agency than a UI designer.

Don’t get me wrong – I love good UI designers, and nowhere near all UI designers will try to pass themselves off as UX designers, or UX architects. These professionals have a far greater appreciation for the aesthetics and signposting required in a really usable interface than I do. They’re faster at designing the screens that users will be using than I am. They’re more in tune with what visually cues with users than I do. And I’m learning from them all the time. They really should earn more than the market seems willing to pay them. 

But, still, a UI designer is not a UX designer. In part 2 of this blog, I delve into the attributes, and differences, to look for when engaging UX and UI designers.


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