User Experience research (UX) as a discipline has exploded over the years.  It has now (rightfully) begun to get credited as a vital discipline directly responsible for the success (and failure) of products. Unfortunately, it is also ranks as one of the most misunderstood of all disciplines.

Product teams ignorant of the nature of the discipline, see UX as an add-on rather than an integral part of a Product lifecycle. One of the reasons UX has to struggle to be seen as an equal to other disciplines is the fact that it’s much harder to tangibly attach a ROI till a product is actually rolled out. This has made UX somewhat of an outlier within the Product design spectrum even though it should well be seen as of it’s most critical.

To add to the confusion, to already muddied waters, and one of the key reasons for UX not being able to hold it’s own ground as a discipline is because it’s often confused about being an extension of User Interface design (UI). A discipline that is a much smaller subset of UX and requires a completely different skillset.

A lack of awareness of how the two disciplines co exist prompts inexperienced product teams to believe they can simply hire a UI designer, instruct them to ‘DO’ the UX and this in itself will magically address all customer pain points and engagement requirements. These teams are quite unaware of the differences of UI being a small subset of UX, a much broader discipline. The temptation to force UX in what should just typical UI designer role gives product teams a false sense of security over something as vital as customer engagement.

UI vs UX

So why is it so important to separate and uniquely identify each discipline. Isn’t it possible to get both done by the same person? Well theoretically yes, this can be done but in reality this much harder than it looks especially when you deep dive into what each discipline involves.

UI designers are trained to interpret visually what an interface should look like based on best interaction design principles. They are trained in the aesthetics of a product which includes the colors, fonts, visual hierarchy and how users will interact with the product.

UX on the other has is a vast field that goes as deep as human psychology. There are varying research methodologies built to distil and interpret the millions of permutations of human cognitive psychology and derive predictable models so that this can be used by product teams for everything from defining the value proposition to product design. User experience research, done well, is very resource intensive. Few UI designers would ever have the capacity to do anything beyond ensuring a minimal level of heuristics. The big gap that precedes UI, includes field research with real users compiled into personas and problems that need to be solved, ideated, prioritised way before a prototype. This effort presents a significant challenge to any UI designer attempting to do both the research and the prototype. What presents even more of a challenge is the fact that a UI designer can never be impartial to user testing once they build a prototype. They will always be biased to the actual results of user testing and could even potentially nudge a participant at a user testing exercise towards a design that they favour. For this reason, user testing should be conducted in a neutral, impartial environment where the UI designer has little opportunity to influence any result which again makes merging both roles UI and UX very difficult.

Over time, a new role has emerged that is more suited to address this gap in the form of a UX designer / Interaction designer. An interaction designer more closely works with UX and is able to address the gap between customer needs and business requirements while building the blueprint for the product including wireframes and wireflows. This separation of disciplines makes each role more focused on deliverables that allow a UI designer to then add the final polish.