UI stands for User Interface which refers to the visuals a user interacts with in a product or service. It connects the user with a product’s functionality.
In the job title “UX designer,” the word that everyone gets hung up on is “designer” and traditionally that meant working on the aesthetics of a product.
While UI plays a role in UX, it’s only one of the things that UX designers tackle on a daily basis. Remember the 6 core disciplines of UX that we talked about in “What is UX?” Visual design is only one part of UX. It’s not the whole thing as many unfortunately think it is.
The primary focus of a UX designer is to identify and solve a problem that helps users accomplish their goals while meeting business objectives. This means that, far before getting into the HOW, it’s crucial to understand the WHY and WHAT. Furthermore, when UX designers get into the HOW, they first start with low-fidelity mockups where detailed UI isn’t a concern.
Fidelity refers to the level of detail. Low fidelity means there’s a small level of detail and exactness, whereas high-fidelity means there’s a high amount of detail and the product is starting to or already looks like the final product.
The starting point of any good UX is done on a whiteboard or with pen and paper. This, by definition is “low-fidelity” because there’s a small amount of detail. It’s meant to be iterative and fast. The goal of starting with lo-fi is to test your early concepts and ideas with users.
Testing lo-fi mockups with users helps you gain an understanding of what works and what doesn’t. This allows you as a designer to move forward, confident that you’re tackling the right problem for the right people.
Early designs that are too high fidelity will ultimately slow you down and any feedback you receive will be focused on the visuals and less about functionality. You'll get bogged down in the minutia and will miss out on learning what works functionally.
Imagine you’re tasked with building an alarm clock.
You wouldn’t want to start by focusing on the finish material like wood or carbon fiber. Instead, you’d want to start by researching the target audience and their needs. That way you can create a product that is useful, relevant, and meaningful for them.
Maybe you learn through research that the target audience for this alarm clock is people with visual impairment. They don’t care about the finish material. They want big numbers and large knobs. In this scenario, a pretty alarm clock that doesn’t serve their goals is useless.
All in all, UX shouldn’t be confused with UI. Visual design is only one aspect of UX. As UX designer generalists, designing the UI is just one facet of your job.
All that said, people definitely specialize in UI, which is why there are roles out there for UI designers/visual designers. Usually UI designers don’t have/aren’t expected to have the skills related to following a human-centered process.
If you enjoy the visual design side of things and have no interest in the 6 core disciplines of UX we talked about earlier, then definitely look into UI design. If, however, you're interested in the whole gamut, UX is the ticket.