User Interface (UI) vs. User Experience (UX)

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…

27 thoughts on “User Interface (UI) vs. User Experience (UX)

  1. Dave Sussman

    I’ve had exactly the same experience with that type of sink, also in hotels. No clue as to how to empty the water and then the realisation that you have to put your hand back in the dirty water to let it out. Most hotels are appaling at UX, bathrooms especially. Virtually none cater for short-sighten men who wet shave; you’re too far from the mirror and the lighting generally leaves your face in shadow.

  2. Yaakov Greenshpan

    Well, I couldn’t agree more, but I think that as human factors experts, we can take a lesson from Apple: they have very nice UI however, for my humble opinion, it is not as good as it being judged. Why is that? Because it is all about the “wana’be” if I use apple I am young / different / creative… etc’. What I wanted to say is that there might be a different between what people feel about the design, about themselves and it’s efficiency / ease of use. We see it all the time when we make usability testing. Sometime you feel good using an application and it has nothing to do with it’s ease of use. Is it a UX? I think so since it helps me explain what users feel and do.

  3. Shai Wininger

    True. I think that a lot of this type of bad design (specially in software) comes from the fact that the tools and technology allow us to do more than we actually need. This fact creates an uncontrolled urge by UI guys which come from the graphic design side of things. It fast, its there, it gives you instant gratification – lets use it !. A great example is Silverlight and Flash. I think it took years for Flash designers to mature and realize that using this technology is merely an additional flavour and not the reason to cook in the first place…

    From what I saw recently going on with Silverlight – the same thing is happening there again.

    Product Managers and QA should always be on the lookout in examining these aspects to prevent from such design flaws from happening.

  4. ZMan Zamora

    There is this hair dryer that my wife has at home. To store it folds a certain way. To this day after about 10 years of owning it we still fight with it everytime because we cannot remember how to correctly fold it up. Since my wife rarely uses it, she usually just leaves it laying around until I come around to fold it up and put it away. I always have to play with it a few minutes until I finally remember how to properly fold it up. I feel really dumb even talking about this as I write this. You would think that I would remember after about 10 years. But like I said she rarely uses it. Trust me, I know about horrible user experiences, and this is one of them.

  5. Seth

    @Yaakov: Your comment fascinates me because you mentioned Apple. I used to not really be an Apple person because back in the day of the multicolored iMacs and OS 9, I didn’t see any advantage to the system over Windows, there was little software written for Macs, and small obstacles like the single-button mouse and lack of an eject button near the CD tray got on my nerves.

    Some years later I found myself working in the music industry and using Macs on a regular basis. This time on OS X with a multi-button mouse, and you know what? Once I gave it a chance I got to really love it. It took some adjustment, learning to use the Cmd key instead of Ctrl, finding out where to go to change my user prefs, etc. After a short time I noticed that I had adjusted quite well. What’s more is I wasn’t having system crashes, ever! I wasn’t getting viruses, ever! And the OS was somehow faster so I was getting more work done. I could open my songs, artwork, and other documents created on a PC on the Mac too, and most of the applications I used now had Mac versions as well. One day I realized that I had become a Mac person and now I can’t imagine buying a Windows machine ever again.

    What’s my point? Well, sometimes a UX can be superior, but if it’s different from the norm, people may shy away just because it’s not familiar. Some people will avoid really efficient tools that would triple their productivity, just to dodge the initial learning curve, no matter how slight. This presents a challenge for UI/UX developers because it becomes necessary to educate users about your superior system in addition to designing it.

    Some people stay in abusive relationships for years because they’ve adapted to the circumstances and fear the unknown. I have family members who still use AOL and hate it, but they signed up 10+ years ago and it’s what they know, so they stick it out.

    Humans are creatures of habit and that presents serious hurdles in such cases. On the other hand, habit can also enable people to work faster when presented with what is familiar, so don’t make radical changes just for the sake of being unique. Only force the user to learn new habits if they will be happier for it in the long run.

  6. Seth

    Oh man! What are the chances?! After writing a big long post about how I love Apple, I noticed that this is a blog written by a Microsoft employee! I wasn’t trying to fling mud, I swear! Maybe you’ll be cool about it and approve the post anyway…

  7. smguest

    :-) Of course – you raised some very good points in terms of some of the barriers for people switching UX. Another great example is online banking – just because another bank offers a better user experience, is this enough for most people to go through the hassle of switching accounts (inc. setting up bill pay etc.?) In many instances, not.

  8. http://

    Wow…I don’t work in the field of UI or UX, but hope to one day, and I got to say: after reading all the post, you guys are really sparking my interest. The reason I read this article was to find out what exactly was the differences between UI and UX. Im just a recent high school graduate.

  9. http://

    Hmmm, im confused.

    If I had to explain the difference between UX and UI I would argue that UX is the whole experience whilst UI is just about the interface. Seems I’m kicking in an open door I know, but bear with me…

    I love your examples and I think I can use them to explain further. The user experience for the shower is ambiguous:”It looks nice but doesn’t offer a good showering experience” This remarks on the fact that the way the water coming out of the shower hits you is is not what you would like to experience, but the design is something you can appreciate.

    The User Interface, on the other hand, is only a part of the User Experience. It only deals with how to control the functionality of a certain object. The showerhead can turn… but the UX sux because the UI for doing this is crap.

    I hope it makes sense… Love the fact you found all these marvels in one hotel room ;)

  10. Lynn Dombrowski

    Interesting post! I agree with both the article’s author and the last commenter. The issues that you are articulating are really usability problems that -affect- a person’s experience.

    The distinction I want to clarify is that user experience design is more than usability or dealing with usability problems. You can have two sites or products that have the same exact usability and function but completely different experiences.

    Lastly, I agree with the last commenter about the experience being affected by the overall synthesis of the experience.

  11. Mikko Tikkanen

    “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.”

    Erm. You are still talking about USER INTERFACE here, in this case the UI just sucked b*lls (not intuitive and all-around bad), which in the end, probably ends up providing bad USER EXPERIENCE. UI design is one aspect of UX design. UX, in the end, includes things like user satisfaction, utility or even price. Basically, all the factors that have to do with subjective experience of said product/service/whatnot.

  12. Farhad

    Great examples – really fun way to think about design vs experience, although I wouldn’t necessarily equate design with user interface. As Mikko indicates above, the light switch interface was poor from the get-go – no feedback, no state indication, no immediate functional recognition, etc. However, even if all that had been good, the experience would have been crappy considering the 3 second delay. Maybe it’s all semantic hair-splitting but the interface is literally just what it says – the point at which the user interacts with the machine/service. And the experience is just what it says – how the user ends up feeling about the service having gone through it.

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  15. Evan

    Yeah, those labels on the light switch really would have helped in “semi-darkness”

    Once you learn how to use something, you don’t need the labels anymore. Do you want to keep the training wheels on your bike forever?

  16. ellie

    @ Evan: In this instance, for a User that is constantly changing (hotel customer), then yes the training wheels should stay on. If a bike is going to get handed down to another person who is learning to use the bike, you wouldn’t remove the training wheels.

    UX and UI should consider the type of user.

    Great discussion.

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