Look, we all know at this point that UI design is not the same thing as UX, and that doing one well does not guarantee the quality of the other. But at the same time, the two are more closely related — interdependent, in fact — than most “experts” seem to want to admit.

The truth is that, with a digital product, you cannot have meaningful UX without equally great UI design.

And by the same token, you cannot truly call a UI design great unless it plays a role in delivering positive, valuable UX.

Part of the barrier to understanding and accepting that lies in the terms we use, and what we think they mean.

For example, when you hear the words, “great UI design,” what comes to mind?

I’m willing to bet the first thing you thought of is something aesthetically pleasing.

You’re not entirely wrong, but aesthetically pleasing is subjective, and the fact that something is pretty doesn’t necessarily make it useful, usable or valuable.

So “great UI design” should be defined a little differently. Design, as I was taught many years back at Kent State University, is only good if it communicates appropriately and effectively.

It’s good when it solves a problem.

It’s good when it enables a two-way exchange of information and interaction between the design (or product) and the viewer (or user).

Does it meet their expectations? Does it enable them to understand? Does it motivate them to act, lead them through a process? What impact does it have on them, emotionally, cognitively, psychologically?

If you’re thinking that sounds an awful lot like principles of good UX, you’re right.

But back then, we just called it design.

In any case, the careful, considered selection and arrangement of specific visual elements is the first and most important enabler of valuable user experiences. What we see determines whether or not we can make sense of it — and therefore whether or not we can use it.

That’s why, in hundreds of consults and projects I’ve worked on, the clues to UX issues — what’s sinking a product in the market, preventing people from doing their work, or causing people to abandon the site or the app — are often found by taking a good, hard, long look at the visual design of the User Interface.

It may look fantastic, but if problems exist it’s a good bet something isn’t being presented in a way that people can perceive or understand or act on.

So, more often than not, that’s where I suggest teams start.

By way of example, in the first part of my 90-Minute UX Audit & UI Redesign course — part of my NEW online school, the UX 365 Academy  I make the case that nine times out of ten, the reason we struggle to identify what to tackle first is that we’re focused on the way things look.

There are a host of reasons for that, most of which come down to basic human habit and reflex. Expectations and judgments are first formed visually, so we’re unconsciously attracted to the visual first.

What we should be focusing on, however, is how those visual elements work (or don’t):

  • Which elements prevent people from finding what they came for?
  • Which prevent them from making sense of what they see?
  • Which prevent them from acting on what they see?
  • Which prevent them from trying, buying or using it efficiently?

These UI issues are often the cause of UX problems. The UI design choices we make either work with or against the user’s motivations, expectations, environment and possible actions. All of those things manifest themselves in the UI — what people see on the screen is usually the sum of their understanding about what this is and how it works.

So what we show them has to do a hell of a job communicating what’s there for them, how it’s organized, how they get to it and what they can do with it.

As such, UI design isn’t just about creating a more beautiful visual interface. It’s about redesigning that UI so it works for the people who use it. So it allows them to easily figure out where to start and how to get what they need — quickly, efficiently and intuitively.

And, of course, it just might also happen to be beautiful 😉

Check out UX 365 and the 90-Minute UX Audit & UI Redesign course!