UI Designer vs. UX Designer: Are They the Same?

UI Designer vs. UX Designer: Are They the Same?

Web design is constantly evolving, so it only makes sense that the expertise and responsibilities of the creative professionals involved would also evolve. Today, we often refer to user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) designers as if they’ve always been a part of the web design lexicon when, in reality, both disciplines have evolved exponentially over time.

Whether you’re an experienced web design professional or someone just exploring the UX or UI freelance opportunities that come with working in the web design field, it’s important to understand the roles of UX and UI designers, how they differ, how they work together, and how to decide which might be the best option for you to pursue.

This article will cover:

What is UX design?

User experience design is often referred to as a human-first approach to web design. UX designers like to put themselves in the shoes of their websites or apps users, asking questions like:

  • How will a typical visitor feel when they use this site or app?
  • Will a user be able to seamlessly navigate the site?
  • Does the site meet the target user’s goals?

The goal of a UX designer is to create a digital product that users feel comfortable interacting with and adds value to their online experience.

What is UI design?

The UI designer focuses on how they want users to perceive the website from an aesthetic and emotional standpoint. The UI designer shares a lot of the same skill set as a graphic design professional but with an added emphasis on user interaction that meets user needs and supports a good UX. A UI professional strives to create a website that:

  • Users will find visually appealing
  • Users can connect with on an emotional level
  • Users will intuitively know how to optimally interact with site features

To meet their UI objectives, these designers are obsessed with all the intricate details that go into creating the website’s visual design and overall aesthetic appeal. They’re constantly on the lookout for the right bells and whistles to enhance the user journey.

UX vs. UI designer: Comparing responsibilities

While UX and UI design are considered separate disciplines that come with different responsibilities, it’s important to remember that for a website design to stand out, equal time must be given to form and function. As such, UX and UI designers need to work in common cause toward the joint goal of producing a user-pleasing digital asset.

UX designer vs UI designer responsibilities


UX designer responsibilities

In keeping with their human-first approach, the UX designer spends a significant amount of time learning what makes their users tick—their likes and dislikes. UX designers also want to know what the competition is up to. Because they want the user to find value with each online interaction, they take a particular interest in a digital asset’s content.

For example, let’s say you’ve been hired to act as the UX designer for an online music store. Your top five UX designer responsibilities might include:

  • Understanding the client’s and user’s goals
  • Carrying out an analysis of the client’s competitors
  • Using this intelligence to create a design strategy
  • Developing design prototypes
  • Assisting with content development

Understand client and user goals

When designing a website, app, or another digital product for your customer, it’s important to understand why they’ve decided to move forward with the project. What are their goals, and how will they measure whether they’ve been met? Often, the answer will lie in whether the digital asset meets the goals of the client’s intended users. That’s why it’s equally important to understand what will make the users want to access the site or app, stay on it, and return to it time and again.

When looking at our online music store example, the goal of the owner is to attract people who are in the market for musical instruments to the site and then convert them into purchasers. Website and app analytics will clearly indicate user behavior, such as page views, product views, what makes it into shopping carts, and what items ultimately convert. The ultimate measure of success for the store owner is, of course, sales revenue.

The user’s goals may not be so transparent. This is why it’s important to develop different user personas to anticipate the needs of your target customers. The professional bass guitar player who knows what they need, for example, will behave differently than a middle school student renting an instrument for a band. In creating realistic representations of who the different customers will be, the UX designer will look at their characteristics, such as:

  • Demographics, like where they live, how old they are, and their gender
  • The levels of technical abilities they possess
  • What are their values concerning the products being offered (e.g., Are they brand loyal? Are they cost-conscious? Are they quality-focused?)
  • Whether they’re professional musicians, long-time hobbyists, or novices just learning to play

Some of the people attracted to the site might be looking to purchase a musical instrument to add to their collection. Others might be seeking information on certain types of instruments or access to music education information and tutorials. Understanding the user will have a huge impact on how the UX designer approaches the project.

Carry out competitor analysis

One of the best ways for a UX designer to develop design flow concepts is to carry out an analysis of what the competition is doing. Usually, the client will provide a list of their top competitors in the industry. The UX designer may then take this list and break it down into different categories of competitors based on size, location, reach, and market share, looking at industry statistics to identify any trends for each category.

Conducting an analysis of the functional elements and content of the websites, mobile apps, and other online products competitors use, the UX designer gains valuable insights into industry best practices. This analysis also helps the UX designer discern what in the industry standard has become stale or lost its appeal. Sometimes, the best information that comes out of an analysis of a competitor’s website from a UX perspective is what not to do.

Our online music store UX designer might begin with looking at a large national music store chain and its online presence to determine how a typical customer would navigate the site to find a specific type of instrument or model. Is it easy to search for a particular guitar model or a drum set? How long does it take to load pages? Does the site guide the user to a page to purchase relevant accessories—such as guitar strings or drum sticks—to complete their purchase? Are tutorials on tuning a guitar or setting up a drum kit readily available for the novice musician to access?

The UX designer’s goal is to see how easy it is for a typical user to get their needs met on competitors’ sites, how products are displayed on different pages, and even try to test the site to see how and if a customer might become confused, disoriented, or frustrated.

Create a design strategy

Once the UX designer has a pretty good idea of what the client wants, what the user personas look like, and how the competition is faring, they’ll start creating a strategy for their design. Often, a UX designer will employ information architecture tools and methods to help organize their thoughts, display the information they’ve gathered, and develop ways to meld their research into action items they can execute.

Two common design strategy tools include card sorting and site map planning. With card sorting, you use the personas you created—or invite actual members of your target audience—to better understand your users’ expectations when it comes to site architecture. The method entails writing each product or page purpose down on an individual notecard and then seeing how target users categorize and sort them.

With the online music store, you might think that separating your guitar offerings into types—acoustic or electric—is the way to present them for product search categories. However, after writing down all the different guitar types, sizes, brands, colors, body styles, and woods on individual cards and asking your target audience to categorize them in a way that makes sense to them, you might be surprised to find they categorize them by brand.

Where you thought that customers would initiate searches by style, you’ve now learned they’re more likely to seek out a Fender, Gibson, or Gretsch before drilling down into types of guitars. This information is of great value in understanding and designing for your users’ behaviors.  

Site maps are simple tools to help UX designers organize content flow to make sense to users. Site maps are simple flow chart diagrams that show how web pages connect with webpage trees and website content. In other words, the site map is a blueprint for how your website or app will flow from a user information access standpoint.

The site map for the online music store may show how the pages displaying string instruments will connect to string instrument accessories, string instrument tutorials, and related product reviews.  

Develop prototypes

Before settling on a functional design for a site, a UX designer will often create several prototypes using wireframes, a simple mockup of a website that provides visibility into the future site’s structure, layout, and user flows without getting bogged down in the intricate details that will inform the look and feel of the site.  

For the music store website and app project, for example, you might create a wireframe prototype consisting of sample pages for band instrument rentals. The wireframe pages are mocked up depicting how the band instruments will be displayed and organized, how users will navigate from one instrument to the next, how they’ll access and complete the band instrument rental agreement, and how they’ll virtually check out their instrument. Although not functional, the wireframe will depict the navigational systems—like how to toggle from one page to the next—and how they function together.

Assist with content development

While UX designers aren’t necessarily producers of content, being able to assist with content development—and even draft some proto-content where possible—is an important aspect of ensuring a positive user experience.

As the UX developer of the musical instrument online store, you’ll probably be concerned with how certain content flows on the site. For example, if the website is going to promote live music events on the homepage, it’s important to make sure the site’s calendar is set to populate the homepage with a notice of the upcoming event.

Consider all possible scenarios—an event that lasts more than one day, a recurring event, an event venue with an address longer than the site allows for—before you hit a content population snag.  


UI designer responsibilities

To some, it may look like the user interface designer is only concerned with form since function has been extensively addressed by the UX designer. While it’s certainly true that the UI designer will shift a lot of the design focus to making sure the website or mobile app’s aesthetic is considered attractive by the target user, the UI designer’s impact on user experience is more than meets the eye.

The fact is that the better something looks, the better users believe it works. Experts attribute this tendency to the aesthetic-usability effect, a phenomenon that causes users to think attractive products function better than unattractive ones, whether that’s actually the case.

According to UX expert and NN/g co-founder Don Norman, who explored the aesthetic-usability effect in detail in his 2004 book, “Emotional Design,” perceived functionality through aesthetics is a normal and predictable part of the user experience.

Let’s say you’re appointed the UI designer for our online music store. You might be in charge of:

  • Analyzing the user response to design
  • Collaborating with developers
  • Designing website aesthetics
  • Improving prototypes
  • Tracking the human-computer interaction

Analyze users’ responses to design

Like the UX design process, the UI design process incorporates user testing but at a later stage of development. With design testing, users are asked for their input on your design prototype. The test can be as simple as offering them which of two designs they prefer or asking them to complete a series of actions on a webpage, or as complex as tracking user behavior using a high-tech heat map. The goal is to ascertain how targeted users relate to your design while it’s still in the prototype stage.

Testing users’ responses to our music e-commerce site can be as simple as asking members of the target demographic to sit down with the prototype site and go through the motions of selecting and executing a mock purchase of an instrument with a coupon code you provide them. After they complete that task, you might do a detailed debrief to determine what they thought of the experience and how the design influenced their choices on how to proceed through the site.

Ability to collaborate with developers

As a vital member of the front-end development team, the UI designer needs to collaborate with other product team members. That means using their creative skills for problem-solving and incorporating visual elements, as well as interface elements and other aspects of UI design, into the overall web development process. Product design is a team sport, and the UI designer answers to the product manager like everyone else on the team.

Design website aesthetics

The UI designer makes sure the website aesthetics align with the client’s overall brand identity. It’s the role of UI to make sure the design sends the right signals to the target audience. This involves translating the client’s brand personality—and, in some instances, helping the client develop a strong brand identity—into a visual style that supports the UX functions of the site.

After engaging in design research, the UI designer will choose and incorporate the color palette, typography, iconography, imagery, and patterns to tell the brand story. Through careful selection and placement of buttons, animation, and fonts, the UI designer makes the UX functions shine.

In developing an online music store, you could use your UI design skills to bring the storefront (homepage) to life. Adding in playful elements—such as note-shaped buttons and music sheet icons—you can use your UI design skills to guide the user through the site’s offerings.

Improve prototypes

The UI designer’s job is to take the design from wireframe prototype to living color, user-friendly design. Where there were bland lines and simple instructions before, the UI designer creates colorful backdrops and exciting interactive icons, all the while keeping faithful to the design aesthetic desired by the site owner’s brand. Functionality remains top of mind as the UI designer is careful to honor the UX designer’s focus on functionality.

With our online store, picture the movement from grayscale pages filled with blank boxes to a visual rendition of the music that can be made through the instruments now depicted in a vibrant vibrato of color and sound.

Track the human-computer interaction

One of the responsibilities of the UI designer is to track the human-computer interaction (HCI). By utilizing the human senses to enhance a website’s UI, the designer can take steps to bridge the gap between where the internet device ends, and the user begins.

For example, the UI designer for our online music store can create HCI elements like developing sound samples for different instruments, allowing the online shopper to assess tone and timbre by clicking a sound button on the instrument image. This auditory user interface combined with the instrument’s graphical user interface allows for an HCI that makes the mobile shopping experience up close and personal.  

Similar responsibilities

As you can see, there can be no great UX without great UI and vice versa. If the product development team’s goal is to create a user-centric website with a responsive design that provides an outstanding overall experience, the UX and UI designers need to work in harmony. Both skill sets are crucial to determining how users will perceive a site’s usability, and both UI and UX designers share responsibility for the end user’s product experience.

The UX and UI designers, working as a team, both take on the responsibilities of:

  • Ensuring a positive user experience, both from a functional (UX) and aesthetically pleasing (UI) perspective
  • Understanding user personas to anticipate how individuals will interact with the site (UX) and what aspects of the site they’ll be intuitively drawn to (UI)
  • Working toward continuous product improvement by testing user satisfaction from a form (UI) and function (UX) perspective and tweaking the design as needed (both UX and UI)

Which one is better paid?

The average salary for web developers and digital interface designers is around $77,000 a year. There doesn’t appear to be a discernible difference between how these particular tech industry professionals are paid. However, salaries for either can range anywhere from $40,000 to $146,000 a year, depending on factors like location and experience.

On Upwork, freelance UX designers typically make anywhere from $25 to $39 an hour, on average, while UI designers usually make about $20 to $40 an hour, depending on experience and the client.

What is the best option for you?

Since salaries are going to be similar, the decision of whether to pursue a career path in UX or UI design will depend on where your interests and talents lie. Because a UX designer job is going to be more analytical and incorporate an understanding of psychology and cognitive behavior, an individual who is more people-oriented and interested in the human condition might lean in the UX direction.

On the other hand, if you’re someone who appreciates art in all its forms, delights in sharing your sense of style with others, and can’t wait to find out what color will top the Pantone list for the coming year, you might opt into a career in UI design.  

Freelancing for designer jobs

Web design teams are on the constant lookout for freelance designers. If you like the idea of setting your own schedule and running your own freelance UI/UX design business, it’s a great time to explore the myriad opportunities for freelance work on Upwork as a UX or UI designer.

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UI Designer vs. UX Designer: Are They the Same?
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