UX vs UI. What Kind of Designer Are You?

How to realize your capabilities and improve your UX/UI skills

Rick Mess       |       January 17, 2022

“A mind is like a parachute. It doesn’t work if it isn’t open.”

— Frank Zappa

We are so used to the phrase “UX/UI designer” that we don’t even realize that it’s as absurd as calling someone an “analyst artist.”

Designers like to present themselves as specialists in both these fields, but in reality you are more likely to meet a unicorn than a good multifunctional designer. Some people’s brains are better at logical tasks, others are better at imagery and emotions. That’s why some are better at UX while others excel at UI. Even experienced designers don’t always realize the scope of the problem, and newcomers to the profession aren’t aware of it at all. But as they say, better late than never. The problem does exist and must be acknowledged.

To become any kind of professional, you ought to know your strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes they are not apparent to ourselves. I hope this information will help someone to understand themselves better and start moving in the right direction.

1. Separate UX from UI in your mind

Why is it important that you do that? There are projects where UX and UI are not easily separated. But it doesn’t change the fact that we are dealing with a fusion of two different fields of design. These fields rely on different neural activities and different skills. So you should learn to separate the two from the start, to see which is which. Then you can skillfully combine them.

Think of UX and UI as two precious metals, gold and silver. We need to know the properties of each one to be able to work them. It’s the only way we will be able to get the proportions right and create a strong and beautiful alloy.

2. Find yourself

UX and UI are so fused together in public perception that many designers don’t even see themselves as specializing in either UX or UI. They don’t make a distinction between the two in their minds and position themselves accordingly.

This may be attractive to your clients, but you need to make a clear choice for your own sake.

If either UX design or UI design attracts you more, you devote more time and effort to mastering it. This makes sense. The better we are at something, the more we want to do it. Thus, a designer who prefers UX will focus on improving his UX skills, while a UI designer will immerse herself in visuals and ignore UX.

So you concentrate your efforts on your favorite field. Meanwhile, what happens on the “dark side of the Moon”? You actively avoid the things you’re not as good at or defer to standard solutions. Neither option is really adequate, as the overall project quality will inevitably suffer.

Understanding what you are is crucial for any designer. Knowing your weaknesses gives you an advantage and ultimately makes you stronger. You see what you need to brush up on and devote more attention to it. Alternately, you can simply tell yourself “hey, this isn’t really something I want to be doing” so that you focus on more specific tasks and stop wasting your (and everyone else’s) time.

Knowing yourself is especially relevant for designers who work alone. One advantage of working in a team is that it brings together UX and UI specialists. This results in a perfect alloy of the two precious metals. Working alone means learning how to compensate for the less developed part of yourself and to improve the skills that are lacking.

But even if you work in a team, it’s helpful to acknowledge your specialty and know your advantages and disadvantages.

By knowing yourself better, you can:

- position yourself as a specialist in a specific design field;

- delegate parts of your work to another team member;

- ask for advice;

- allocate more time to deal with the more difficult things;

- work on yourself by filling the gaps in your knowledge and improving the problem skills.

UX and UI are indeed closely interrelated and require similar skills. But it would be wrong to think that UX means logic and UI means creativity. It’s not that primitive. There are some basic distinctions that will help you separate one from the other and understand which one you prefer.

3. UX designer: the architect of the universe

A typical UX designer does have an analytical mind. He knows how to find, structure, and collate the necessary information. But at the same time, he has a well-developed spatial awareness. He visualizes the architecture of the project and pictures the sequence of actions performed by the user. He works out the user’s every step and creates a corresponding algorithm.

Furthermore, a UX designer is well-versed in human psychology and can control users’ attention and predict their reactions. This enables him to create the requisite experience of user interaction.

A UX designer’s job is not limited to organizing the virtual space. He must also communicate with people, talk and listen to them, understand the needs of the client and users. He must know how to justify his choices and be convincing in defending his project. This is important.

Essentially, a UX designer is the Architect and Scriptwriter of the virtual universe that the users find themselves in.

4. UI designer: the heart and soul of the universe

A UI designer visualizes the Architect’s plan, breathing life, color, and feeling into it. Without a UI designer, even the best-planned universe will be dull and lifeless, and users will leave at the earliest opportunity.

To create a universe that users will love and want to visit again, it’s not enough to know your way around design software, understand composition and color theory, or create good designs. Being able to draw is an advantage, but it’s not crucial. Creative thinking is a huge advantage, but it’s still not sufficient.

A true UI designer is someone who can both see and show. She knows exactly what, when, and how to show. She understands which images will or won’t get a response out of users. She purposely engages the viewer’s feelings, commanding his eyes and attention. A good UI designer is a subtler psychologist than even a user experience designer.

Being able to empathize with others is critical for a UI designer. Analytically-minded people are often not very emotive. So on a purely mental level, a UX designer may understand that “this is where the user should get excited and spill his coffee” but have no idea how to achieve it. A UI designer, on the other hand, will easily find a way. She will study the user portraits and imagine herself in their place. Her imagination and emotional intellect are sufficiently developed. She finds it easier to understand what users need, find a common visual language, and help them achieve their goals. She’ll tell them a touching story, she’ll inspire and excite them, she’ll please their aesthetic sense. In the nearest future, UI designers will probably outlast UX specialists. So far, there’s no AI that could reliably replace them.

A UI designer must also be sociable, able to work in a team, defend her vision and stick up for her work.

5. Master alloy

The gold and silver alloy analogy works well to illustrate the fusion of UX and UI skills. In our case, both metals are equally good and valuable. A gold-and-silver alloy is called electrum, and it is indeed a beautiful thing. A master alloy is usually added to make it stronger. There’s a master alloy in design, too. It is the soft skills: flexibility, being able to work with others, a desire to widen your horizons and grow professionally.

6. How to determine what you are

If you are still unsure what kind of designer you are, UI or UX, recall yourself as a pre-teen. What did you like best — math, erector sets, and programming? Drawing, photography, and videography? What were you better at? What did you enjoy more?

If you know what it was, then that’s it. It’s your very own, special, most beautiful thing. Your personal ability. The seeds of talent sprout in your childhood. (And yes, it may very well be entirely something else than design!)

What gives you a better knowledge of yourself? It helps you to radically change your approach to work and reach a different level. Someone will realize he’s more comfortable working in a team. Someone else will focus her efforts on the things she’s not good at yet. Someone will find a work partner so that he can keep improving his strengths and not waste time on the things he has no talent for. Identifying the problem is half the solution.

Finding yourself is more than just a key to professional success. It’s a way to a happy and meaningful life.