As in all things digital, there is not a simple answer to this.
Designer and expert Helga Moreno put it in a nutshell though when she said this:
“Something that looks great but is difficult to use is exemplary of great UI and poor UX. While something very usable that looks terrible is exemplary of great UX and poor UI.”
But the difference between UX design and UI design is more complex than that.
So let’s start with UX, or user experience design.
Most simply put, UX design is a human-first way of designing products. It’s about enhancing customer satisfaction and loyalty by making something easy and even enjoyable to use.
While this could apply to any number of interactions between a potential/active client and a company - such as sticking two beer cans on either side of a hat and designing a stream-lined straw to go directly to the mouth - we’re focusing here on UX design as it pertains to the digital world.
The role of a UX designer is complex and multi-faceted. It goes beyond the visual and moves into more of the realm of marketing. The UX designer is deeply involved in the structure, analysis and optimization of the customer’s experience with the company or product. Working in this capacity means being hands on with the process of research, testing, development, content, and prototyping to get the most optimal results.
So a UX designer could really be more appropriately called a UX designer/marketer/project manager.
But that’s just too much of a mouth full. But basically, the UXdesigner’s main objective is to connect business goals to user’s needs through a sometimes arduous process of testing and refinement which will ultimately bring happiness to both sides of the relationship.
So then does that mean the UI designer is the visual person?
Not exactly. (Because that would be too easy.)
Some would interpret the profession of user interface, or UI, designer as something akin to graphic design - sometimes extending outward to branding design and front-end development. Others are more inclined to define it in much the same light as UX design, but with more emphasis on the visual component.
Both are somewhat true and somewhat not true.
Much like the UX designer, the UI designer wears multiple hats and takes on many responsibilities.
At the end of the day though, the UI designer is ultimately responsible for taking a product’s development, research, content and layout and waving their magic design wands over it to create an attractive and responsive experience for users.
And the UI designer is never solely responsible for the brand itself. But s/he is responsible for the translation of branding to the product. Which is sort of a big deal.
So are UX design and UI design mutually exclusive?
This is what Helga Moreno seems to imply. And in many cases, they are. Sometimes one is just going to be more needed than the other. For example, in situations where there are multiple user types or multiple products or services catering to different audiences, UX design makes more sense.
But there are websites that incorporate both, to some degree. Though it’s still a rarity to see both UX and UI design at maximum strength. That day when interface and experience join forces could well be coming though.