Pixel pushing

“Can you tell me the difference between UI and UX?” I asked them.

The interview, up to this point, had kept poking me on UI. But they needed a UX leader. That’s what the job description specifically demanded. That’s what the recruiter had told me: They needed someone who could push hard against the current experience paradigm and demand better, not just push pixels. Why were they insistent on asking UI questions? I figured I’d ask them, as obliquely as I could.

“I don’t know. I mean, I need to be educated.”

I didn’t pursue the question; the job didn’t interest me anymore. I have had this fight my entire UX career. And while I’ve fought and won that battle so many times… I didn’t want to fight it again.

I’ve had a few of these “broken record” moments in interviews. Organizations need UX. They insist they need UX. But when you start poking at what they think they need, they say, “well, we need someone to make it pretty.” But that’s not UX. That’s visual design.

I’m not belittling visual design in the least — it’s an essential part of UX design. But it’s just one part of UX design, which itself is a subset of design.

Caring about how your UI looks is like caring about how your car’s dashboard looks. Your dashboard may be quite lovely, but if the car is always breaking down and it’s unsafe at any speed when it is working, what’s the point?

If an organization can’t delineate between UI design and UX design, it could mean they haven’t thought enough about what they’re out to do with their product. Some have a deep sense of product vision and/or a great product management team and/or a deep empathy for their customers. But we know how uncommon those companies are. Most companies are just slogging through old processes, making the next sale, living to see another day.

To learn the difference, they would need to have a moment of clarity, where they realize no matter how pretty they try to make the user interface, it doesn’t solve their customer’s true pain points. Sometimes it takes having a UX designer tell them their UI won’t save them. But usually that results in the UX designer not getting hired, or getting pushed aside.

I felt bad for whomever took that job I interviewed for. From what I could tell, the organization felt like they had a good vision. But they couldn’t articulate it for me. It was clear they were struggling with user interaction, information architecture, and information design — the nuts and bolts of what we call “UX.” The things that make your nice car dashboard feel like it’s part of a great car, not a beautiful thing with no connection to the horrible car experience around it.

Great design is more than just pushing pixels. It’s also about creating an experience that ties all the elements together in such an elegant way the person using it doesn’t even notice it’s designed.

I hope the org finds the UI designer they need. But I also hope they can find someone who can be their design thinker as well. Maybe it’s the same person. But so long as they think they’re pixel pushers, they may never see it.

Author: Dylan Wilbanks

Dylan Wilbanks is a web roustabout, raconteur, and curmudgeon currently practicing as a user experience designer in Seattle. He’s spent nearly 20 years designing, building, and perfecting online experiences, and every once in a while does a good job. Occasionally, he speaks at conferences like SXSW and Webvisions. He created one of the first Twitter accounts used in higher education, but that was an accident, and he's really sorry about it. With Kyle Weems, he co-hosts Squirrel And Moose, a podcast about designing and building the web, when they remember to talk about it. He likes nectarines. You can read his tweets at @dylanw and learn more at dylanwilbanks.com.