UX vs UI & Beyond: Drawing the Lines Under Your Role as a Designer

UX vs UI and beyond

You don’t have to go far to find articles trying to clear up the confusion between UX vs UI design. It’s easy enough to see why the two get mixed as well – not only because they’re closely related, but the fact they’re both abbreviated in similar ways hardly helps.

However, the line between UX vs UI design is pretty easy to define and, once you’ve got your head around the two concepts, it’s actually quite simple – whether you’re a designer or not. But things get a little more complicated at the other end of the spectrum.


A clear divide: UX vs UI

When a client asks me the difference between UX vs UI design I like to keep things short and simple. I tell them to forget the acronyms and call them what they are: user interface design and user experience design.

From here it’s much easier to explain that UI design is one part of the wider UX design process, but this always leads to the key question: what is user experience? I have my own answer, of course, but the line isn’t so easy to draw in this case and there’s plenty of room for debate.


Defining UX Design

Don Norman is the man credited with inventing the term “user experience” in the late 1990s and his definition is quite broad:


“User experience encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services and its products.” – Don Norman

Let’s make it clear that Norman is defining “user experience” here – not user experience design – and he defined the term before UX design as we know it became an intrinsic part of our lives (not to mention our industry).

Norman has also addressed the issue of defining user experience in the modern age himself: “The term has spread widely, so much so that it is starting to lose its meaning,” he told Adaptive Path back in 2007. And he was right; we have a problem with defining user experience – not when it comes to UX vs UI design, but where user experience ends and we move into something else.


Where does UX design end?

Norman’s definition of user experience entails every interaction between people and a brand, but this is too broad in a digital world where people have more channels than ever to interact with brands across the world.

Your typical job description for a UX Designer certainly doesn’t go that far and most will stay safely on the digital side of things. Here’s one “User Experience Designer” job description I found on LinkedIn:


  • Handle the UX/interaction design needs of projects you are assigned to.
  • Create project deliverables such as storyboards, flowcharts, wireframes, prototypes, and detailed designs.
  • Participate in user research, competitive evaluation, and usability testing.
  • Work with related personnel such as user researchers, usability engineers, industrial designers, and graphic designers to create great product experiences.
  • Form alliances with people in technical and creative functions to achieve high-quality and consistent delivery.
  • Provide implementation support to technical teams.
  • Manage your own projects like an internal consultant: on-time, on-budget, no surprises.
  • Help [company] to further integrate user-centred design methods.
  • Work effectively with outside vendors if needed for your projects.


So no surprises this job description focuses on the digital side of things, short of countless interactions between a brand and its target audience. But these other interactions are vitally important and they’re becoming more closely tied to UX design as the web and user expectations evolve.


From UX to the wider customer experience

Let’s say you’re a freelance UX designer for a moment and you have an ecommerce client who isn’t turning as much traffic into customers as they would like. A key place to look at will always be the checkout process with a keen eye on shopping cart abandonment – especially if it’s above the 60-70% average.

To keep things easy, let’s look at the most common cause of cart abandonment as an example: shipping.

Studies show the three things an online shopper wants to see most during the checkout process are:

  1. Free shipping options (81%)
  2. Estimated delivery date and fees stated early (63%)
  3. Estimated or guaranteed delivery date (62%)


So if you consider shopping cart abandonment a UX design issue then it’s fair to say shipping firmly fits under the user experience bracket – but where does the UX designer draw the line? Is it your place to advise business owners on their shipping fees, carrier choices and returns policy in the name of better conversion rates?

And if user experience is every interaction between a brand and its customers are you supposed to scold delivery drivers for not smiling sweetly enough when a customer answers the door?


UX design in context

Okay, let’s reign things in before we start ganging up on hard-working delivery drivers (disclaimer: that last one was supposed to be tongue in cheek). But the point is UX design is no longer the (only) finishing line between users and conversions; it’s part of a much bigger picture as online and offline interactions merge.

The rise of social media customer care is a perfect example, or Facebook’s efforts to combine online and offline interactions into a single buying process via its Atlas platform. All of a sudden UX design, user experience and how your clients deal with customer care (amongst other things) all come under the same, but much wider, customer experience.

Which means, as a freelancer, you may find yourself advising business owners on issues that aren’t strictly UX design to help them create a consistent experience as customers navigate between online and offline interactions. That’s some responsibility right there, but these businesses come to you because they don’t have their own designers, which means they probably don’t have their own in-house marketing or product designers – and if they do you’ll likely be working very closely with them (take another look at the UX designer job description from before).

The good news is you can draw the line where you want to an extent and make it clear to clients where your duties end. You can make exceptions, recommendations or play it as safe as you like – that’s the beauty of being a freelancer. The downside is it’s getting harder to be a one-man (or woman) band as the technical roles behind the web become increasingly intertwined.