Have you wondered what’s behind the look and feel of the apps and websites you use daily? That’s user interface (UI) design, which is the process of creating visual elements for people (users) to interact with a product or service. The goal of UI design is to create an easy-to-use, highly functional and visually pleasing interface. But what is UI design? Lucky for you, we’ll go over UI design, why it’s important and include resources for learning and inspiration.

A person laying down casually looking at their iPad and thinking of elements of UI design for their website
Illustration by OrangeCrush

What is UI design?

UI design focuses on the interactivity and aesthetics of a digital experience. This could be a mobile app, website, or even a video game. It covers functionality as well, affecting how a user experiences a product or service. Good UI design puts the user in control and makes it easy for them to navigate the experience.

Everywhere you look, UI design is deeply integrated into our daily lives. It’s how we interact with our favorite apps and digital devices, like social media platforms, websites, your phone’s camera gallery and your laptop’s operating system. Each graphical element, like the buttons you click on, text field boxes on a form, the color, layout, typography, illustration, are part of UI design. A UI designer needs to consider accessibility, efficiency and smoothness of interactions.

There are many types of UI design, such as graphical user interface (GUI), command line interface (CLI), touch user interface, game UI, and even voice user interface (VUI). Here is a bit more information about each type.

Graphical user interface (GUI) and command line interface (CLI)

 A CLI based operating system (MS-DOS). Right: DOS Shell, a GUI file manager program running on top of MS-DOS.
On the left is a CLI based operating system (MS-DOS). On the right is a GUI file manager program running on top of MS-DOS.

Graphic user interfaces (GUI) provide a visual way to interact with programs and operating systems without having to look at the code or skeleton underneath. Whereas command line interfaces (CLI) involve using text-only command prompts such as Windows Powershell or Linux terminal. Most computers in the 1980s and early 1990s ran CLI-based operating systems such as MS-DOS. Shortly later, Apple Macintosh and Microsoft Windows led the way for GUI-based operating systems, phasing out CLI operating systems for everyday users. If you wish to learn more about the computing GUI timeline, the GUI Gallery is an excellent resource.

Game UI

Game UI is a huge nation in the world of game design. It includes the following:

  • Navigation of the main menu and all subsequent menus throughout the game
  • Help and how to play instructions
  • Overlaid graphics, or heads-up displays (HUDs) such as a map on the corner of the screen or the number of lives remaining
  • Object and character design, including sprites and 3D models
  • Sound design, alerts and providing audio feedback for interactions
Video games use lots of various UI elements, such as buttons, modals, and much more.
Video games use lots of UI elements, by iGreg.

The goal of game UI is to provide enough feedback and information to the player to know the current game status with as little mental load as possible. Have you ever played a game that felt intuitive? It probably had good UI design. For game UI, simple and obvious is key. Players shouldn’t be forced to navigate cluttered menus or look at busy interfaces to accomplish their gaming goals.

Voice UI

We converse with our family, friends and coworkers through voice, so why not use speech to interact with devices? With the advent of voice-activated devices and software, VUI is a growing field. It’s a great way to implement interactivity for those with limited mobility or vision impairments. Some common examples of VUI applications include Apple’s Siri, Amazon Alexa and voice-activated GPS navigation units.

Touch UI

The way we interact with touch-based devices, such as our smartphones and tablets, involves touch UI. These devices use hand gestures, long presses, swipes and taps for interaction. For example, on a beach day, you take a photo of a friend. Then using your phone’s photo editor, you use a finger to drag the corners and easily crop out an unwanted person on the left side of the image. This is what touch UI is all about! There are many examples of touch UI, such as fingerprint scanning for mobile payments, pinch scrolling to zoom in on a digital metro map and long pressing to confirm file deletion.

Why is UI design so important?

Now that you are more familiar with the types of UI design, let’s explore why it’s so important. Since 90% of the information we receive is visual information and UI covers all visual aspects of interactivity, it is imperative to ensure these interactive and visual experiences are highly effective. Our brains process visuals significantly faster than text, so you want to make a strong first impression through visual elements.

Without compelling visuals and an emphasis on good UI design, it could affect the effectiveness of your product, design and even your business might suffer from customers going to competitors because their products and sites offer better interactivity. If your UI game is good, it can make your designs and products alluring and expand your customer base.

What about UX? And what’s the difference between UI and UX design

Another large aspect of UI design is usability. The two goals of UI design are: how does the interface appear and how does it function? If the visuals are attractive but the functionality and usability are lacking, users will become frustrated or even leave. Here is where user experience (UX) design comes in. UX design is primarily focused on accomplishing the user’s tasks and solving their usability problems. UI is more concrete (like the buttons or a text field), UX tends to be conceptual (is the user happy or mad when making a purchase).

Illustration depicting how UI covers visuals and function and UX focuses on process and experience
Illustration depicting how UI covers visuals and function and UX focuses on process and experience, via SuccessiveTech

To get more specific: UI focuses on selecting colors and fonts, organizing page layouts, and designing interactive elements such as scrolling, toggles, and text fields. Whereas UX is primarily concerned about understanding consumer behavior and needs while adhering to business goals as well. A UX designer will develop personas and journey maps based on the target audience and research.

While there is plenty of overlap between UI design and UX design, the biggest difference is UX focuses primarily on the design process and experience while UI focuses on appearance and functionality.

Learn more about UX vs. UI here >>

UI resources and inspiration

There are numerous ways to develop and learn UI design. One way, for example, is to sign up for Daily UI emails that email you a different UI design prompt for 100 days. The challenges include design prompts for a landing page, music play, hotel booking and many more. It’s a great way to get suggestions and to try design new layouts you wouldn’t have thought about!

Landing page of Daily UI’s site
Practice your UI skills every day through Daily UI’s, via Daily UI

You can also create your own UI projects by redesigning an app or site with your favorite UI design tool. Take one of your favorite apps and think: how would you recreate it? Be sure to practice your skills every day, even if it is just for 10 minutes. Consistency will make you a better designer.

These days there are a lot of online tutorials and classes to improve your UI skills. And there are a lot of design communities you can join, such as Dribbble or Design Buddies. It’s delightful to be part of a community, making meaningful contributions and networking with design friends wherever you are.

If you are looking for more learning resources for learning UI design, take a look at these:

  • Design Resources provides guides, kits, and collections that cover many aspects of design.
  • Linda Huang’s UI/UX Resources offers recommended reading, online communities, portfolio and resume tips, and a glossary of UI and UX terminology.
  • Toools maintains a frequently-updated, huge archive of design resources and tools.

And if you are looking for inspiration, here are some great places to start your search:

Always remember UI design is about designing for your users. Next time you play your favorite video game or shop for clothes online, think about how the UI of the platform was designed. Is there a good balance between form and function? The best examples of UI design have a yin-yang relationship between aesthetics and function.

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