User interface (UI) is anything a user may interact with to use a digital product or service. This includes everything from screens and touchscreens, keyboards, sounds, and even lights.
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The UI designer’s role has evolved as systems, preferences, expectations, and accessibility has demanded more and more from devices. Now UI designers work not just on computer interfaces, but mobile phones, augmented and virtual reality, and even “invisible” or screenless interfaces (also referred to as zero UI) like voice, gesture, and light.
Today’s UI designer has nearly limitless opportunities to work on websites, mobile apps, wearable technology, and smart home devices, just to name a few. As long as computers continue to be a part of daily life, there will be the need to make the interfaces that enable users of all ages, backgrounds, and technical experience can effectively use.
At the most basic level, UI is made up of all the elements that enable someone to interact with a product or service. UX, on the other hand, is what the individual interacting with that product or service takes away from the entire experience.
Don Norman and Jakob Nielsen summed it up nicely when they said:
“It’s important to distinguish the total user experience from the user interface (UI), even though the UI is obviously an extremely important part of the design. As an example, consider a website with movie reviews. Even if the UI for finding a film is perfect, the UX will be poor for a user who wants information about a small independent release if the underlying database only contains movies from the major studios.”
Take Google, for example. Its famously spartan interface highlights how a great experience doesn’t require bells and whistles. By focusing on the user, Google knows that when they come to the site, they’re after one thing: information. And they want it quickly.
The fact that ‘google’ is a widely accepted verb shows how well the company delivers on that experience—and expectation. Just about anything a person has ever wanted to know can be accessed in the blink of an eye and few other search engines survive today.
Now imagine that every time you searched on Google, it took 15 seconds to get a result—you’d no longer be able to instantly get an answer to your question. Even if the interface stayed the same, your experience with Google would be dramatically different.