Our failed attempt to kill the tired UX/UI debate [#uxchat roundup]

UX UI Ketchup

Photo credit: Techtic

We’ve all seen the sea of articles about “the difference between UX and UI design…” Or between a UX and UI designer… Or, even worse, this ketchup bottle and that ketchup bottle.

As recently as two and a half weeks ago, a (popular) new Medium article – about the same topic – was published.

How can this still be such a contentious issue?

That was the thinking when OJ, our social media manager, and I decided to open the topic up to the #uxchat floor.

We thought, The experts will put a final nail in the coffin by getting at the heart of why the question persists – and perhaps, why it’s no longer relevant.”

The conversation didn’t quite go as planned.

OJ and I concluded that was partly our fault – we didn’t give people any context for why we were asking the question. We just did.

Then the discussion, which can be split into two parts, took on a life of its own:

  1. What’s the difference between UX design and UI design?
  2. What will these designer roles look like in the future?

If you’d like to join our next #uxchat – a 1-hour session, every Thursday, where pros discuss a problematic or interesting UX topic on Twitter – follow the WhatUsersDo page.

What’s the difference between UX design and UI design?

The first response to this question, by Alex Morris (bike nerd and product designer), came with a heavy serving of surprise and a hint of disappointment.

This is a perfectly reasonable response – UX professionals have heard 50 shitty shades of this question. But we wanted to see if any of the UX pros in our community could give better definitions, than the other (clearly unsatisfactory) ones out there.

Elizabeth Chesters, a UX consultant and developer, felt (on the other hand) that this discussion wasn’t one best had by professionals who already know the difference between the two.

Elizabeth highlights a crucial issue here, so I’ll spend some time retracing what I believe to be the point of divergence.

There’s a difference between understanding something and being able to explain it in a way that makes understanding it easy for other people. In this instance, I think both are important.

If these discussions are still happening (among professionals) and people are still describing UX and UI using ketchup bottles, it seems there’s still a job to be done. It doesn’t matter how advanced individual professionals are if the industry within which they work is struggling with a lack of clarity.

It seems we still haven’t arrived at definitions that are clear, succinct and all-encompassing enough – perhaps because the 2 fields are still evolving. In which case, a constant revisiting of how we define these terms might be necessary.

After all, legal professionals (even newbies) aren’t constantly debating the differences between a solicitor and a barrister – the differences are too well established.

On the flipside, the term “web designer” means a very different thing today than it did just 7 years ago. The goal is the same but how professionals go about their day-to-day work is quite different.

As Jeremy Thomson, a former lead UX designer at EA Sports, explained in my interview with him, it’s the job of UX designers to always return to the grassroots and educate others.

In an ideal world, people would care enough to educate themselves. But in our imperfect world, it may well fall on the shoulders of advanced professionals to give these discussions clarity.

David May, a UX strategist and designer, seemed to echo that point when he tweeted about a frustrating conversation he’d had with a colleague about the same topic.

I think perceiving these kinds of discussions to be beneath a certain level of expertise doesn’t help – only amateurs will be left to take the reins of what is an important and evolving topic.

If you’d like to dig deeper, check out this awesome SlideShare by the awesome Nick Fine:

What will these designer roles look like in the future?

Joe Pendlebury, a senior mobile UX architect and #uxchat regular, reckons a key step in the evolution of these roles is the education of recruiters and businesses.

And he believes more people need to understand the ingredients comprising each field.

Paul Randall, senior UX architect at Evosite, reckons the UX designer role will die altogether.

Roger Attrill, a UX specialist, reckons only the UX generalists are in danger of fading away… I see what you did there, Roger 😉

What do the futures of the UX and UI designer roles look like? I haven’t the foggiest – it seems the business world is presently struggling to get its head around both.

Enjoyed reading this article? Follow us on Twitter and join in during our next #uxchat – maybe we’ll feature your gorgeous mug and cutting commentary in our roundup.

Get a newsletter that isn't all about us...

Subscribe for weekly, hand-picked articles about UX, design, and more every Friday—from the Be Good to Your Users blog and the rest of the whole darn web.

...get a little taste right here. 👅 🍭

Timi is a London-based copywriter and full-time marketing sceptic – there are now more unvalidated opinions out there than ever.

He became a UX testing enthusiast after seeing its power while working at TUI – the world’s largest travel, leisure and tourism company. He then joined WhatUsersDo to sharpen his UX knowledge and work side-by-side with the field’s best and brightest.

Leave a Reply