What Does UI/UX Mean Anyway? Do Software People Just Make Up These Things?

It sure sounds high-tech “UI/UX.” Maybe is it a robot, maybe it some kind of new software. Even trying to understand UI/UX is a jargon filled, abstraction ladened, overused mess. But what does it really mean?

It sure sounds high-tech “UI/UX.” Maybe is it a robot, maybe it some kind of new software. Even trying to understand UI/UX is a jargon filled, abstraction ladened, overused mess. But what does it really mean?

UI is the simpler concept to understand. It stands for “User Interface.” It’s how users first understand and interact with a software application or website. UX refers to “User eXperience.” So there is crossover.

All software or websites (which are just software at the end of the day) have three levels from the users point of view:

  • The User Interface (UI),
  • The eXperience (UX),
  • And the core abstraction.

The core abstraction is what the user is trying to do. Like, write in a word-processor, crunch numbers in a spread-sheet or edit graphics in a photo editing program. I’m sure you have a few of your favourites – let’s take three.

Word, Excel and Photoshop were not the most used word-processor, spread-sheet or graphics program, but they all beat competitors with a better UI/UX or both.

WordStar was the most popular word-processor, but the mouse and visual interface of Microsoft Word beat it out. While WordStar tried to make the tradition to a graphic user interface (GUI), it did so late in the game and Microsoft owned the code for Windows (gleaned from Apple). WordstarSo, today, WordStar is a distant memory – yet still used by Game Of Thrones Author George R. R. Martin. And Excel beat Lotus 123 with, yet again, a mouse interface. Who knew that accountants were such visual creature. Lastly, Aldus Photoshop (later acquired by Adobe) had lots of competitors but they championed the concept of layers which meant that a graphic project could be built by many parts, laid on transparent backgrounds. That key distinction made easy editing for graphic professionals.

Each of these are examples of where the market had an established competitor, but switched to a new entrant based on a key abstraction, interface or experience.

The abstraction however, needs to be felt or experienced by the user. As such, we’ll meld the abstraction into the user experience for this discussion.

Which brings us back to the user interface. To some extent, the software and the user communicate through the UI. In fact, the word “interface”, in software developer parlance, is a mechanism that allows two disparate (or different) systems to communicate. For example, on a WordPress site, PHP (a coding language), allows the web server to display posts that are held in the MySQL database. PHP can speak to the database to get articles, and give them to the web server for display. It acts like an interface between the user, the website and the database of articles. (Developer purists will note this is NOT the programmer’s definition of an “interface” but close enough for this discussion).

Think of a translator. Guten Tag (German) … Good Day (English). When two people meet who don’t speak the same language, a translator can help. But the translator needs cues to make the conversation work. Like waiting to translate until one person is finished speaking. If a website has all the links hidden, a user can’t find them. If the site responds to a user’s click with no feedback, the user may click and click and click – endlessly restarting the process.

So a good user interface, guides the user and educates them quickly on how to get the software to do what the user needs done. That includes where to look, what to expect, and where to get help. But it also provides feedback. Which brings us to the User Experience.

Think of the User Experience (UX) and the feedback loop. A person goes to eBay and places a bid. The site responds with, “You’re the Top Bidder!” Wow! Feel the excitement. But the eBay team could have just as easily had this, “Our database has submitted your bid. At the end of the auction you’ll be notified of the results.”

Which message would you rather have. And that’s the point of UX. We no longer live in the days of key-punch cards and all text based software. We have a choice with how to give feedback when a user interacts with software.

Most people hated the Microsoft Word Paperclip animation (just search for “word paper clip I think you’re trying to write a letter”) that people even made YouTube videos killing the animated character. The software giant eventually kill it in later releases of Office and it’s return in Windows 8 (Yay).

In a world with so many developers, most any program or website can do the same thing. The “thing” we’re talking about is the core functionality, it’s simply a commodity. In a world of parity, user experience can be the last point of differentiation. Why is InstaGram gaining on YouTube? Maybe it’s a better video sharing experience. YouTube is a great site, but there is little user interaction. Both sites can hold video. But when the UI/UX is wonderful … sharing happens. And that is what is happening to InstaGram.

For any software development team, getting an application with raving fans leads to social sharing and word of mouth advertising. So what get’s people talking? It’s the part of software that people experience, the user interface and the their interaction with it. The UI/UX. And with that … I’ll CU Later.