There’s a lot of talk about “user experience” today, but I’m not sure we’re all talking about the same thing. I often find myself midway into a conversation about UX, only to realize that some participants are really talking about UI, or user interface. In actuality, while the two are related, and both are important, they really mean two different things.
The UI, from my perspective, is what you see when you first encounter something you’re about to use, whether that’s a piece of exercise equipment, a car, a toothbrush or a software application. When you look at a bicycle, for instance, UI encompasses the visuals of the frame color, pedal width and handlebar grips. From a software standpoint, it’s the fonts, colors, icons, animations, and other elements on the screen.
When we talk about UX, the conversation broadens to discuss not just the interface but also the entire experience of interacting with the product or service. On a bike, it’s the difference between test-riding the bike outside the store, and riding it on a mountain trail with friends on a brisk fall day, when the experience is imbued with emotion and excitement, and the bike’s interface elements can really show their stuff.
In the software world, it’s the difference between admiring a clean, compelling design and actually using it to get your job done. You might not be so impressed with that design if you had to click 12 times to complete a simple task. So, while UI addresses how a product looks or how appealing the interface is, UX is about how the user feels when using the the product, service or system. In short, UI is about the look, but UX is about functionality and satisfaction.
Consider the simple act of drinking coffee. You can brew a cup at home for pennies, or buy a cup on the go for $1. But if you’re like the 60 million people per week who get their coffee from Starbucks, you can also pay $4 cup, while also soaking in the ambience and free Wifi. Essentially, the closer you get to provide an experience, the higher people will value it.
That’s why UX matters. A great user experience, whether at a coffee shop or in the workplace, equals higher value, which results in higher satisfaction. Higher satisfaction leads to loyalty and revenues (with customers) and cost savings and productivity gains (with employees). A great UI can lead to a great experience, but it takes an understanding of the human element to reach the ultimate goal of a really great UX.