I often get asked the difference between User Interface (UI) and User Experience (UX). Although the original intent and definition of UI started out in the right direction, too many times I've heard it used to explain just the visual aspects (or cool factor) of an interface. To give you a non-technology related example, let me show you the hotel room that I recently stayed at in Dublin. The hotel is one of the more boutique, modern style ones that we see in large cities (imagine Morcheeba playing in the lobby, contrasting black and white furniture etc. - you get the idea).
As I got to my room late at night, I of course wanted to switch on the lights. In front of me (in semi-darkness) I found the panel for the lights:
As you can see, on first glance, a relatively nice looking "interface" (stainless steel finish, clean, elegant etc.). The experience however was a different story. Firstly, there is no indication of what each switch does. After playing around for a minute, I was able to work out that the left dial is for the main lights, the right dial is for the bathroom lights, the main switch seems to be like a master switch for both. Seems simple enough, however you can also push the dials to turn them on/off individually, with no feedback or indication of what state they are in. To add more confusion, there is a 3 second delay after pushing the dial before the lights come on. Of course, what happens is the following: Hit the master switch - nothing happens. Turn the dial - nothing happens. Push the dial, nothing happens. Push the dial again (within 3 seconds of pushing the dial last time). Nothing happens. Hit the master switch again - nothing happens. Sigh. Repeat.
Once I did get the lights working in the bathroom, I came across the following sink:
Again, very nice looking - a modern, open design with elegant lines and faucets. Question for you: How do I release the water in the bowl? Looking around the basin, there is no stopper for the plug, no chain, no indication of how to release the plug. Also, notice how the plug is flat to the surface of the bowl - there is no affordance indicating that it might be possible to push or pull the plug in any way to release the water. The answer?
Ah, of course - who wouldn't have thought about tipping the plug 45' to the left and having it swivel in the middle? Sigh (again). Having been humiliated with the sink, I thought I would take a shower instead. I was greeted with this shower head.
Again, the pencil design looks very elegant, and unique - but just try moving the direction of the shower head when the water is running. Impossible. Because of the slim design and texture, you can't redirect the shower head in any direction (which can be annoying if it's aiming toward the door as you get in). Also, the design results in a powerful, but very directed spray of water - certainly refreshing, but not as comfortable as you may like.
The difference between "cool looking UI" and UX? You could argue that the items in the hotel room look as if they have a great design, but ultimately result in a poor user experience. I like unique designs - but don't let this come at the expense of a frustrating experience. I just hope we don't see the same thing with new UI technologies. There are a lot of new UI advances that can create unique looking interfaces, but without an understanding of true user experience, it's going to be as bad as my hotel room…