UX, UI, UX/UI, UI/UX, WTF? – The problem with the UX/UI split

“Are you UX or UI?”

The recruiter that sat across the table was dead serious. From a recruitment standpoint it makes all the sense in the world to profile your database of job candidates.

I have to admit I was taken aback by the question.

This was back in 2015, and UI designer as a job title had only just started to emerge. The UX designer title had already existed a few years, often paired with visual or graphic designers to cover the full spectrum of user interface design.

So here I was, being asked the cryptic question wether I was UX or UI. X or I, Experience or Interface. Red pill or blue pill?

When the UX title started to spread and I came across it for the first time my title was interaction designer, and the title fit the role well. I was designing interactions users were having with interfaces. So I was also, per definition, a UI designer.

I always considered myself being a designer for interfaces, even when my title shifted to UX designer in 2013. So to be asked in 2015 if I was UX or UI didn’t make sense to me. I was both. The industry had given me the label UX, but as part of the X, I obviously had to consider the I.

So to the recruiter I guess I was UX/UI. Someone who wants to emphasise their visual design skills would be UI/UX.

The problem with UX and UI designers

The problem with splitting these two tightly knit terms into separate buckets of workload is friction. Friction that comes from misinterpretations, treading on toes and doubling up work.

A very common team set-up consists exactly of this designer pair. A UX designer and a UI designer of same seniority are supposed to cover the full spectrum of product design. First we do the UX and then comes the UI.

This sounds ridiculous when you put in black and white, but I hear it all the time.

“First we do the user experience.”

What is referred to here is the translation of requirements and insights into user journeys and page layouts. Possibly interactions too. What’s left to do is applying brand or styleguides. For an already established product this is sometimes derogatorily referred to as colouring in the lines, or “make it look pretty”.

This is all wrong from a team structural standpoint, and it’s a result of confusing and misleading terminology. I can see why we moved away from using ‘interaction designer’ to encompass the duties of a UX designer though. User research, product strategy and service blueprints were all done by us but didn’t get reflected in the title. We did so much more than interaction design; we considered the whole customer life cycle – We considered every aspect of the experience!

Information architects, human factors, interaction and UX designers have always been on the more science and evidence driven side of the fence. They were not the go-to people for typography, iconography and visual harmony. The artistic and creative flair was left for the graphic, or visual designers.

While they still thrived in agencies doing plenty of conceptual and exploratory work, with the rise of systematic design in recent years there were less need for a team of graphic designers working on an already established product suite. The UI designer role was thus born from graphic designers with additional skills in HCI and behavioural psychology.

Where do we go from here?

I’m going to talk about team structures in another post. For now, I only know that UI is part of the UX. Whatever we call ourselves, the UX/UI split is not a good way to define job roles and responsibilities. The overlap is too big, the responsibilities too vague. We need new terminology to get us away from the catastrophic confusion that has built up over the years, mainly due to the UX designer title.

UI is a thing. UX is also a thing. But UX designer? I think it’s time to scrap it. UX is affected by every part of the business, and to put the responsibility to design it into one single role would be stupidity (unless it’s the CEO).

More and more we see the role ‘Product deisgner’ taking over. This seems to be a visual designer who also understands user psychology and business strategy. We also see niched UX:ers in UX researchers and UX writers.

For UX designers less adept at visual design or not willing to specialise, don’t fret – I think we should find a new identity in the domain of the architect. I’ve been playing with variations of this. ‘Systems architect’, ‘UI architect’, or maybe ‘Product architect’.

Design is a very powerful word. It comes with a set of preconceptions that hardly will go away. We need to pick our battles wisely and maybe realise that as long as we call ourselves designers – UX, UI or UX/UI, people outside our industry will assume that we deal with the look and feel of the final product and that only.

Let’s mull it over as industry practitioners and see what we can come up with.

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