User Interface vs User Experience

Jeff LeBlanc


Jeff is Director of User Experience for ICS. He has extensive experience developing custom Qt solutions with a strong focus on applying human factors principles to UX design.

By Jeff LeBlanc | Tuesday, July 17, 2012

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Hi folks, sorry about the late posting. Between 4th of July craziness, and prepping for our big “ICS UX Webinar: Developing for Success – Focusing on the User Experience” webinar next week, July 24th, 2012 at 1:00pm – 2:00pm EDT, the time just got away from me. You can register for the webinar here, https://www2.gotomeeting.com/register/715598066. I hope to ‘see’ you all there. The following is a bit of a preview of what we’ll be discussing.

Today, a lot of my time is spent thinking about what pixels need to be on the screen, rather than how to get them there. As part of a cross-functional User Experience Team, our job is caring about how the end user thinks and how to apply principles of interaction design, rather than worrying about threading and memory leaks. Our focus is on the User Experience (UX) as a whole, rather than just the User Interface. When I explain my job in those terms, I often get a raised eyebrow and the inevitable question of “What’s the difference?”

It’s a good question, and the answer I give often depends on who I’m talking to. The short answer is that, while most software systems have a user interface, some are better than others. Think about any piece of software you may have used recently, and think about your experience using it. Did you have a notion of “Hey, this is pretty cool?” at any point? Or was it more of an exercise in grinding your way through to get your job done?

Think about this scenario: you've made a reservation for yourself and a significant other at a high priced restaurant in town to celebrate some big event. You get there on time and the place looks great, all dark wood and brass. But, the hostess has no record of your reservation! After some arguing, you’re put on the list, but it’s an hour wait. You finally get seated, and wait another ten minutes for your server to even take your drink order. Your food arrives, and it’s cold. You decide to cut your losses and skip dessert, but when the check shows up, you were billed for drinks you never ordered. After some heated words with the manager, you settle up and head home to write a scathing online review.

Now, how about this: you’re on business travel, positively starving after a long drive to a customer site, and you happen upon a little roadside diner. The place looks friendly enough, so you venture inside. A pleasant waitress immediately seats you at a booth. She reads you the specials, recommending a few that sound particularly good. You order, and your food arrives before you even have time to pop out your iPhone to check email. The food is very good, and when the server recommends “the best key lime pie in the state,” you go for it. The pie lives up to the hype, the coffee is even better, and bill is less than you paid for just the drinks at the last place. You have your five-star review written before you even get back to the car.

Both stories involve a user (restaurant patron) and a system (restaurant) to interact with. The systems have a lot of similarities: servers, menus, food, beverages, and money changing hands. But think about the experience of each place. Which place would you go back to?

And this is why I now care about the UX, rather than just the UI. It’s the big picture view that I’m concerned with, rather than just making sure every feature in the checklist can be accessed. The latter may get people in the door, but it’s the former that keeps them coming back for more.


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