What is UI design? Understand user interface design and its role in creating a captivating user experience. Do you know why the notifications reminder on most mobile apps are red in colour? Or why spam pop-ups have the ‘caution’ icon? Or project management apps like Asana have a flying unicorn when you mark a task as complete? Because each of these things evokes a specific and intense emotion in the user — attention, fear and accomplishment respectively. Evoking these feelings, my friend is what is UI design. Let’s begin at the beginning.

What is User Interface?

User interface definition is simply: The space on which humans interact with machines. The remote control of your television, the button pad on your washing machine, the speedometer on your motorbike, the elevator panel — all of them are user interfaces. UI is the most visible and arguably the important part of human-machine interaction. It has one job: To enable users to effectively operate and control machines. 

If you went to school in the 90s, you’d have been taught input devices and output devices like keyboard and printer. User interface includes both. It is the input end, where users give commands and the output end where the machine gives the user information that helps them move forward in the interaction. But most machines today have input and output devices combined — for instance, your mobile phone screen can accept input from you and display/speak output.

What is UI Design?

User interface design is the process of building interfaces for machines. While it is typically for computers and mobile phones, large-scale digitization and intelligent devices have expanded the scope of UI design to include smart TVs, refrigerators, automobiles, etc.

Evolution of User Interface

The invention of the user interface dates back to the invention of computers itself. It started with the punch card: On which holes were punched at strategic gaps to represent data. This was then fed into the computer which had a card-reader, which translated the holes into digital information. A few years later, the punch cards were slowly replaced by magnetic tapes. While these media were used for input, the output was often printed by a printer connected to the computing device.

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Command-line interfaces soon came into use, reducing latency, and enabling users to code faster. 

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Then came the graphical user interface (GUI), which is still the most prevalent form of UI. From laptops and television to mobile phones and gaming consoles, GUI dominates the way users interact with devices. Also in this journey are menu-driven interfaces, like in an ATM machine and form-based interfaces, such as an online job application.

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Kinds of UI

A human can interact with machines in all the ways they can sense interactions — visual (sight), auditory (sound), tactile (touch), olfactory (smell) and gustatory (taste). 

  • At the most relatable end, you have mobile, tablet and laptop devices that you can see and touch. 
  • Notification on mobiles or the ding of the slot machine are long-time examples of sound as UI. With voice-activated assistants like Siri and Cortana gaining popularity, sound-based interactions with machines will only grow.
  • You might think smell and taste as UI aren’t coming anytime soon, but you’d be surprised. Researchers are exploring synthesizing olfactory sensations for augmented reality/virtual reality applications as we speak. Taste is only a matter of time.

Goals of UI Design

Like they say, good UI design is one where users don’t have to think. To achieve that goal, a UI designer needs to keep the following in mind.

Application usability: The Nielsen Norman Group, founded by usability expert Jakob Neisen and UX veteran Don Norman, lists five aspects of usability: “Learnability, efficiency, memorability, errors and satisfaction”: If a user finds your application easy to learn, quick to use, simple to remember, makes few errors and enjoys using it, voila, you’ve passed the usability test.

High discoverability: If your application makes the user jump through hoops and stand upside down to find the information they need, you have a discoverability problem. A good UI designer will ensure that the user can find the information they need in very few clicks and minimal effort.

Aesthetic appeal: For as long as computers were for geeks, aesthetic appeal was frowned upon. That no longer applies. Researchers Masaaki Kurosu and Kaori Kashimura from the Hitachi Design Center noticed as early as in 1995 that people prefer beautiful-looking products over not-so-beautiful ones, irrespective of how they perform. Good UI needs to be as much appealing as it is useful.

Branding: For each purpose today, there are dime a dozen applications. In the SaaS economy, the cost of users switching applications is extremely low. UI must establish brand recognition for the product and facilitate brand recall.

The UI Design Process

  • Requirement gathering
  • User behaviour research
  • User journey mapping
  • Layout design and prototyping
  • Design including colours, shapes, typography etc.
  • Testing

Role of UI Design in UX

User interface design is about building the space where the interaction between a human and a machine happens. User experience (UX) design is everything that encompasses a customer’s interaction with a product. 

So, UX = UI + application logic. 

This doesn’t make one better or more important than the other. The user interface design heavily influences user experience. It shapes how the user finds information, how well they understand the product, how easily navigate to perform the tasks they want to perform, how consistently they experience the product across devices etc.

UI and UX are complementary areas, going hand in hand across application design. Most often a UI designer and a UX designer will work closely, offering feedback and collaborating on each other’s work. Some UI design tools are also used by UX designers. You’ll see most technology companies advertising for roles combining UI and UX skills such as ‘UI/UX designer’ — not because they don’t know the difference, but because they are often inseparable. This is also why Springboard’s online learning program is structured as UI/UX design that comes with 1:1 mentoring, project-based curriculum and career coaching— where you learn ‘design’ as a whole, instead of just 1-2 aspects. If you’re looking to build a career in UI/UX design, check it out now.