So, you’re sitting in a meeting, and you feel comfortable. The conversation is flowing, and things make sense. Life is good until you hear these two letters: “UI.” You keep hearing it more and more, and eventually, people look at you and ask for your opinion on “UI.” Panicked, you may give an answer, but you leave that meeting never wanting to be put in that position again.
Don’t worry — this happens more often than you think. People throw around terminology in meetings early and often. In the moment, it’s easier to act as if you know what they’re saying and nod. Do this too long, however, and you risk getting found out.
That awareness has brought you to this article. Fortunately, by the time you finish reading this, you’ll know the answer to the following questions:
- What does UI mean, and who uses the term?
- How does a UI affect your product development?
- How can I leverage the term UI to communicate my needs better?
So worry not! In the next few minutes, you’ll become prepared so you won’t get caught flatfooted in your next meeting.
What Is UI?
The term “UI” means ”user interface.” Let’s start with Merriam Webster’s definition of the term:
“[UI is] Software that is designed to allow a computer user to interact with the operating system of a machine or system (such as by selecting presented options or entering text commands)”
In layman’s terms, that means however you interact with the computer is a user interface. The browser you’re reading this article on? User interface. The printer screen you had to interact with to print this article out? User interface. The phone home screen you are trying to ignore that notification from? User interface.
Whenever you’re using software, you do so via an interface that allows you to interact with the code that helps you complete a task. Instead of working with a bunch of computer code and a compiler, a user interface makes the task easy for both you and the computer. So, you may ask, what do I mean by “the computer”?
Well, computers don’t know if you mean what you input. If there are no guardrails, which a UI often provides, the worst that can happen isn’t just that you don’t get what you want. The computer itself can fail. I’m speaking from experience; when I was four, I accidentally formatted my father’s hard drive because I didn’t use any UI.
Before we look closely at UI, you may often hear another term paired with UI, which is UX. These are two separate things, however. So, let’s look at what makes them different.
UI Versus UX
UX is short for user experience. Let’s go to Interaction Design Foundation (IxDF) for a definition:
What is User Experience (UX) Design? User experience (UX) design is the process design teams use to create products that provide meaningful and relevant experiences to users. This involves the design of the entire process of acquiring and integrating the product, including aspects of branding, design, usability and function.
Although UI is about how the human interacts with the product, the UX looks at how the product changes the person. UI is a part of the experience, so you can think of UI as a part of the UX puzzle.
UI and Product Development
Sure, blowing up a hard drive is an extreme edge case, and we have user interfaces to thank for that. They limit the damage we can do, usually quite effectively.
Let’s go back to why you’re here. How does UI affect your work, and who is usually in charge of making it?
Well, the UI is how your users will go about solving the problem your software is here to solve. When a UI is well built, it offers fewer ways for the user to get stuck. It’s accessible to a wide range of skill levels, and you can see metrics like net promoter score (NPS) go up as users don’t find themselves frustrated.
When a team builds a product, someone with the word “designer“ in their title is usually in charge of the user interface. If there is no designer, the task will often fall to a product manager or a front-end engineer. The designer is here to make the interface usable for the target customer. The designer also makes the UI accessible, so the user can get the most out of the software. Finally, this person’s job is to make the UI less frustrating so people will actually use it.
The person or team responsible for the UI often use research to help improve it. Sometimes this comes in the form of usability testing, interviews with customers, or just looking at how users interact with the product through software that tracks how successfully users accomplish their goals.
Using UI to Better Communicate Your Needs
If you’re curious about your product’s UI, the first step is to go look at it. Find a way to use your own software if possible. If that isn’t possible, ask the person in charge of the user interface to demo it for you.
This is a great opportunity to collect any remarks you have about the user interface and ask questions. Remember, you aren’t the expert, so don’t make demands. The UI is probably set up the way it is for a reason. You do have an opportunity to make a better product by introducing your insight, however.
The person in charge of developing the UI may ask for people to try a new interface out, which is another great opportunity. This step often happens before a release. If you don’t know when the test is happening, ask the designer. They’re more than likely to let you know when you can help. During the test, you can again make your needs known and get your feedback into the product.
UIs are difficult to put together, and getting them right for public consumption is a true team effort. Take advantage of opportunities to help.
UI in Practice
The next time you find yourself in that meeting, you’ll know the following:
- The UI is how the user interacts with the computer to help the user solve problems.
- The UI can frustrate users, and the designer is there to make the interface usable, accessible, and less frustrating.
- The UI is changeable, and there are opportunities for you to help make it better alongside a designer.
Don’t get tripped up in your next meeting. Draw on this knowledge to accurately answer the question and even build a partnership with the product development team to make your life easier.