What the Heck is IxD, UX and UI?

There’s a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip that perfectly encapsulates the IxD profession.

Six-year-old Calvin is sporting a rather spiffing astronaut helmet and superhero cape. His mom asks, “What’s up today?” Calvin responds, “Nothing so far.”

“‘So far’?”

“Well you never know, something COULD happen today. And if anything does, by golly, I’m going to be ready for it!”

Calvin’s mom is somewhat taken aback, then responds, “I need a suit like that.”

Today’s uber-dynamic companies need someone who’s ready for ANY design challenge. As IxD professionals, we seek to suit up every day to handle anything an employer can throw at us. As a result, we are both multi-faceted and in the throws of a full-blown identity crisis. This has made defining IxD, UX and UI a bit perplexing.

Why all of the confusion?

IxD is a new, constantly evolving profession. Because it’s constantly in flux, we can only define what we see right now.

We are an ugly duckling: It’s obvious that we’re “birds” of some sort. We’ve already done some growing up, and we still have tons of potential. We also don’t know where we’ll be if and when we’re done growing up—but we think we’ll be beautiful.

As IxDs continue to evolve, our definitions will likewise evolve. With that grain of salt, let’s look at some definitions.

IxD Defined

According to Wikipedia and IXDA.org, IxD is Interaction Design or an Interaction Designer. It is “a multi-disciplinary design discipline that uses human understanding to manage the growth of complexity due to but not limited in scope to technology.”

The focus of Interaction Design is:

  • Human Computer Interaction (HCI)
  • User experience (UX)
  • Behavioral psychology


Having said that, very few people apply the term “IxD” to members of our profession, including those of us in it. IxD seems to be getting more and more use, though, and I’m grateful. The term draws the largest circle of definition and thus encompasses most of us.

Here’s another qualifier to the above definition: Most members of our profession do NOT possess a degree in HCI, UX, or psychology. ALL IxD professionals have a solid understanding of each of these to one degree or another, but we typically gained that knowledge on the job or in workshops, rather than in college.

For example, I gained a lot of experience with psychology via conversion rate optimization. My experience with HCI came from conducting user tests. My UX background has come from working with a wide range of clients to produce a wide array of products. And I’ve attended workshops and other training events. But what did I learn in college that I actually apply on the job every day? Not a clue. I vaguely remember some art classes…

Here are some other common terms used for IxD professionals:

  • Interaction and Experience Designer
  • UI/UX Designer
  • Just UX or just UI Designer

None of these are very accurate or inclusive, and but they’re used interchangeably for “IxD” nonetheless.

UX Defined
UX is user experience, and user experience design is “the process of development and improvement of quality interaction between a user and all facets of a company.” 

Since a user has so many touch points with a company—a website, billboard, email, brand, video, social media outlet, app, and more—user experience design is, of necessity, multi-disciplinary.

User experience design is also, by its nature, analytical. It focuses on the decisions behind those company touch-points. In today’s society, those touch points are, more and more often, digital. Thus, user experience design is deeply concerned with making decisions for digital interfaces like apps and websites.

UI Defined
UI is user interface. User interface design is “responsible for the transference of a brand’s strengths and visual assets to a product’s interface as to best enhance the user’s experience.”  In today’s society, the interface is usually a digital one.

UI Design is a very important SUBSET of UX Design. It is the VISUAL component of UX. Yes, it is graphic design, but with much more complex requirements.

UX vs. UI
Simply stated, UX focuses on the decisions behind the UI, and UI is the expression of UX objectives. I love this analogy:

“If you imagine a product as the human body, the bones represent the code which give it structure. The organs represent the UX design: measuring and optimizing against input for supporting life functions. And UI design represents the cosmetics of the body–its presentation, its senses and reactions.” 

Pretty straightforward, right? And yet, in spite of the simplicity, the two terms are misused all the time.

“As Rahul Varshney, Co-creator of Foster.fm puts it. ‘User Experience (UX) and User Interface (UI) are some of the most confused and misused terms in our field. A UI without UX is like a painter slapping paint onto canvas without thought; while UX without UI is like the frame of a sculpture with no paper mache on it. A great product experience starts with UX followed by UI. Both are essential for the product’s success.’”

Why Get These Definitions Right?
I’ve seen misuse of these terms cost companies big money. Some waste time interviewing and hiring candidates for a UX position when they’re really looking for a front-end developer. Even worse, others will throw all of their resources into creating a terrific-looking app but invest very little into demographic research, wire framing, or testing. Both of these scenarios are corporate hammers driving square design solutions into round objectives.

Beware of these common misuses! Each one squanders resources and elevates blood pressure.

  • UX=UI
  • UX/UI=front-end developer, software engineer
  • UX=front-end developer
  • UI=graphic design

Seek instead to apply the right term to the right designer, and put that designer to work doing what he or she was hired to do. That’s it! Still confused? So am I. But fret not! My fellow IxDs and I are busy prepping for whatever challenge you can hurl at us.

Just let me change into my suit…