Everyone has interacted with UI/UX before, possibly without knowing (in fact, you’re doing it right now). UI/UX stands for “user interface” and “user experience.” Any time you navigate a website, or check your weather app, for example, you’re technically a “user.” What you might not realize is that it’s someone’s job to consider every button, color, step, and functionality of a product so that using it feels instinctive to you.
UI and UX are often lumped together, but they’re fundamentally different concepts. Someone who works in UX explores why users behave the way they do with a product, identifies pain points, and strategizes solutions. Then, UI comes in to fine-tune the product’s appearance, selecting colors for buttons, choosing text that’s legible, and generally making sure the product makes a good impression.
“UX is this umbrella term and UI kind of falls underneath that,” says Taylor Green, Product Designer at Skillacademy. An easy analogy that Taylor says will help you remember the difference: a UX person is like an architect, who comes up with a plan and concept for a structure, then works with builders to bring it to life; a UI person is like an interior decorator, who makes aesthetic decisions about the space, based on what’s elegant and practical.
Intrigued? Our course Intro to UI and UX Design will walk you through key concepts of UI/UX design and the general process of a product development lifecycle. You’ll also have hands-on practice making polished prototypes using the design tool Figma. Here, we’ll go through the various jobs in the field and what it takes to kickstart a career in UI/UX.
The jobs you can get in UI/UX
There are lots of different roles within UI/UX, and they tend to have overlapping responsibilities. Depending on the size or scope of a company, UI/UX roles can be specialized, generalized, or hybrid. For example, a company might have a robust team of multiple researchers, usability testers, and writers that all fall under UX. Or, they could have one UX designer who does it all. Some common UI/UX jobs that you might come across include:
- UX designer (or UI/UX designer): A generalist who oversees the holistic experience of a product, including UI design.
- UI designer: Someone focused on designing user interfaces, or what humans interact with on screen.
- UX (or user) researcher: They interview and survey users to unpack why they behave the way they do. Some companies have teams of user researchers who are focused on a different type of research: qualitative, quantitative, or mixed methods
- UX writer: This person writes all of the text that you find on a website or application, like error messages, buttons, and onboarding instructions.
If you want to dive deeper, here’s an in-depth breakdown of the various career paths and roles within UI/UX.
The technical chops you need for UI/UX roles
A common misconception about UI/UX is that you have to be “artsy” or come from a design background to get it. While it is an aesthetic field, and lots of people transition from graphic design to UI/UX, design knowledge is not a prerequisite. “Any background you have, you can find a way that it connects somehow to UX — and it might actually be a positive [that you don’t come from a design background],” Taylor says.
Similarly, you don’t have to be able to write code at an advanced level to make it in UI/UX. Here are the technical skills people should learn if they want to work in the field:
Basic front-end coding
Though you won’t be spending your days writing code in UI/UX roles, you will have to work closely with engineers. “If you can’t understand the languages or understand how to communicate with engineers, it’s definitely going to pose a barrier,” Taylor says.
Having a foundational knowledge of code also helps you understand the time constraints and effort that are required to execute a task. For example, when you’re thinking about a potential solution to a problem within a product, you can set realistic expectations and workloads because you know what has to happen behind the scenes.
Figma is the all-encompassing main design tool that you need to know going into UI/UX. “It’s the most advanced tool, and it’s also really great for collaboration,” Taylor says. “People can go in there and look in real-time with you and write comments — it’s very interactive.”
In our course Intro to UI and UX Design, you get free access to Figma, and will learn how to use it to make wireframes and prototypes for a mobile and web app.
3 traits that make successful UI/UX professionals
Regardless of the job title, most people in UI/UX roles have these traits in common:
Empathy and compassion: A huge part of UI/UX is empathy, or being able to put yourself in a user’s shoes and understand their perspective, Taylor says. Not only are you constantly thinking about what a person’s goals and aspirations are while using a product, but you also have to consider obstacles that might be confusing or frustrating along the way. UI/UX work also involves compassion — the desire or motivation to take action to help relieve someone’s suffering — says Nannearl Brown, a UX researcher at Figma.
There will likely be times when you’re working on a product that you’ve never used before — and that’s okay. You can build empathy for the user through research, which involves communicating directly with users in interviews or listening to their stories.
A good listener: You’re often in charge of fielding input from lots of different parties, like users, engineers, and other stakeholders (like product managers and product designers), Taylor says. Before you can start to make changes, you have to listen to and digest information. “Being able to take their feedback and knowing where and what to implement is important,” she says.
An aptitude for learning: Like a lot of roles in the tech world, people in UI/UX have to be nimble. “This is a field similar to engineering where things are changing every day,” Taylor says. For example, you might need to quickly pick up a visual style guide for a sub-brand, or learn a new design tool.
An open mind: As a UX researcher, Nannearl says it’s important to be a “blank slate” so you can absorb information and learn from other people. “You also have to be self-aware and recognize that you have biases that might play into the work that you do, and other people you work with or talk to may have biases as well,” she says.
Flexibility is also crucial, because you’re often thinking on the fly, pivoting, and improvising, Nannearl says. “A lot of the time we make research plans, and they don’t go as planned,” she says. “Figuring out how to roll with whatever wrenches that are thrown into what it is that you have planned out, and then coming up with things that still head toward your goal is a great skill.”
Tips for breaking into the UI/UX industry
Once you have an understanding of the key UI/UX design concepts, “don’t be afraid to jump right in, get your hands dirty and start working,” Taylor suggests. “Ultimately, that is the best way to learn.”
See if you can take on a project doing UX research for an app or website, Nannearl says. You typically need a portfolio when you’re applying for jobs, so it helps to start a collection from your side hustles. “After you do get stuff in your portfolio, knowing how to communicate about it and actually tell the story is something that people are going to be looking for,” she says.
Using social media to network is common in this field, Taylor says. “Follow your favorite people who you find inspirational, whether they’re engineers, product managers, product designers — and don’t be afraid to message them,” she says. Or, look up on people on LinkedIn and see if they’re open to sharing some pointers: “People are really willing to do a 20-minute informational interview if you ask them,” she says. “And each one of them will have unique advice to give you.”
Ready to dive in and learn the foundations of UI/UX? Check out our Intro to UI and UX Design course. Not only will you become well-versed in UI/UX theory and popular design methodologies, but you’ll also get hands-on practice creating wireframes and an interactive prototype.
If you’re interested in honing your research skills, our Principles of Data Literacy course is a great choice: You’ll learn how to collect and interpret data, which is an important part of the UX research process. And for an overview of how to turn your designs into functioning websites, check out Learn HTML and Learn CSS.