UX ≠ UI Design: Does Your Company Get It Right?


Everybody UX now!

During the past couple of years, you might have become aware of the fact that you need to incorporate UX into your R&D process. Of course, you have heard/read/quoted the famous line by Steve Jobs going “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” (it’s from this great 2003 NY Times article). UX is of great value, and we all need it. So we better write it in our job descriptions, right? But wait, what about UI designers? We need them just as much. Is there really that much of a difference? Maybe we could just…

The Quest For ‘UI/UX Designers’

If you ask an HR professional or a CEO what’s the next most important thing to a company after people, they will most likely answer: structure & organization. You want everybody to do what they’re best at & collaborate seamlessly, and you don’t want anyone to be overchallenged. Well, by asking for a UI/UX designer, you’re doing just that. It’s equivalent to making someone wear the hats of product manager and engineer at the same time. You basically ask someone to concentrate on solving the most detailed problems while constantly keeping an eye on the big picture as well. In other words, you’re asking someone to carry out specific tasks while researching & defining those tasks at the same time. Anyone who has ever tried that with a great, dedicated developer or designer knows how adversity feels like. Yet, since UX is the term of the recent years in R&D, so many startups are looking for UI/UX designers, that by now even lots of UI designers have adapted the description, and it slowly defects the UX definition (especially in Germany). This unhealthy issue – which is giving me a hard time as well – is based on a simple misunderstanding, so let’s solve that.


UX = UI design = </3

UI designers are of great importance because they combine visual design and interaction design to solve defined problems. They make sure your user interface gets out of the way and carries out every bit of the human-machine dialog in an elegant, visually pleasing and satisfying manner. Regarding the number of problems to solve and the amount of visual and interactional design elements to create, that’s a full-time job!

UX is the intangible design of a strategy that brings us to a solution.

UX experts are of great importance because they combine research insights and conceptual thinking to define & test user demands, and align them with the companies’ objectives & outside factors.

…it is about designing the total user experience, which consists of all aspects of a product or service as perceived by users.” IBM

Thus, the UX expert interacts not only with the UI designer, but also with product/engineering on information architecture and user testing, as well as with the editorial team/onsite marketing on content strategy. Because UX experts receive their input from multiple areas of business, the job of a UX expert usually does not stop here, but additionally consists of returning information to marketing, brand, communications, and senior management. Now, that’s a full-time job as well, wouldn’t you agree?

Can’t Somebody Else Do The Job?

In small companies, this is a necessary reality. Usually, in very small startups (~5 pax), the CTO, in conjunction with the CEO, is in charge of UX. Growing startups (~20 pax) commonly assign this role to the head of product, because the CTO and CEO have to move on to more administrative tasks. Above this vague line, even the head of product has to devote most of his time to organizing the product managers and engineering teams to make sure front- and back-end production are on time. Since everybody else has to concentrate on their job, medium to large startups/companies are the ones who usually need someone who studies the user’s behavior, puts that into context of the company’s objectives & outside factors, and drives input and testing of further design – in short: they need a user experience expert.

Add Value By Acknowledging & Utilizing UX

UX x UI design = ❤

By now, a bigger picture should emerge: once your company grows above a certain level, it is clever to separate research and development. This transition enables a part of your company to fully concentrate on pushing development forward, thus becoming much more fluent & efficient in their workflows, while another (and usually much smaller) part of your company constantly researches, gives input & evaluates. In short: by making this separation of workflows possible, you enable everybody to fully concentrate on what they’re best at, and drive collaboration (read: inspiration). Designers solve visual & interactional problems to develop great UIs. ‘UXers’ are their natural counterpart. Together, UX experts and UI designers, equal to research and development, can create the most meaningful, emotionally affective and pleasing experiences, thus my pledge:

Enable everybody in your company to do what they’re best at!
PS: I do a UX Office Hour at betahaus Berlin, for everyone who’s in town, would like to come by and get some free advice: feel invited. The next one ist on Wed., Jul. 24th, and you can register either via OHours or the betahaus website.


Of course, just like every job description is different, so is every organizational structure. Also, there are lots of overlapping descriptions of UX expert & product owner, as sharp definitions of job profiles are a rarity in general. See this my take on of how the thoughtful integration of a UX expert and the ideal assignment of tasks to everybody’s core competences can benefit your R&D.


Before anyone of you yells out’ bingo’, let me say that I am not a big fan of playing the terminology game  Of course we can set up more and more terms, and readjust the contents of each niche, but I don’t see the real value for the customer. In fact, terminology is all too often used to hide behind, while clients have a hard time figuring out what service they are actually buying. Thus, I am concentrating on using plain words and only apply the most common & well-accepted terminology in this post.

Still don’t feel me? Let’s ISO it out!

Would you believe that a 66-year old institution is way ahead of most people’s understanding of UI design and UX? No? Neither did I. The ISO, the authority for commercial & industrial standards like ISO 9001, the de facto standard for quality assurance (QA), has defined the requirements for jobs for many decades, thereby helping organizations apply systematic thinking to their organizational structures and establishing cross-organizational trust. In terms of UI design and UX, it sets the record straight with its ISO 9241:

Let’s start with UI design. ISO 9241-110 “…sets forth ergonomic design principles… and provides a framework for applying those principles to the analysis, design and evaluation of interactive systems” and is intended for designers. It also “focuses on dialogue principles…
ISO 9241-210 “…provides requirements and recommendations for human-centred design principles and activities…” – in our case: software design. The ISO “is intended to be used by those managing design processes

Feel invited to dig deeper…

This post was inspired by Erik Flower’s great article on UX, which you can find here.

Get an overview of the current understanding of UI/UX design by browsing these German job board posts.

This great Carnegie Mellon paper by Jodi Forlizzi & Katja Battarbee, dubbed “Understanding Experience in Interactive Systems” digs deeper into the types of user-product interactions and experiences, and serves as an inspiration to me.

This great article (quoted above) by IBM is an oldie but goldie on understanding the scope of UX (here dubbed ‘user experience design’).

The First User are an authority on UX, and their blog, which can be found here and which also covers matters of UI design, is great for grasping the basics of UX.

There are many more great sources, some of which I’ll add to the next couple of blog posts about UX.

(Image by Eirik Newth, Flickr)

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