Design vs User Experience

One of the topics that keeps popping up around the office is that of design vs user experience. At first glance you might consider them to be the same issue – both involve presenting data and actions to the user in a way that they find appealing and easy to use. While they address the same issue, I think that these practices do so with a similar, yet different, goal in mind. The best differentiation might be to say that design is focusing on making the application visually appealing while user experience focuses on making the application easy to use.

There is a massive amount of overlap between these two approaches – they’re implicitly linked. A large part of making something easy to use is to make it visually appealing, and a large part of making something visually appealing is to make it easy to use! I try to think of it as two different targets within user interface design. Design tends to focus on the visual appeal as the end goal, while user experience tends to focus on ease-of-use as the end goal. The key word here is focus – I’m not saying that design doesn’t consider ease-of-use and vice versa.

Why is this distinction important? While these two approaches have a very similar goal in mind, they follow very different development cycles. Most design firms will happily create the entire design up front, before the application is anywhere near completion. User experience – on the other hand – can’t guarantee the design up front and will evolve the design over time. The design will evolve as the user experience is refined and improved.

Case in Point

The Flight Card iPhone app is a good example of this distinction. It’s one of the best-looking apps out there. Just look at it – absolutely stunning. The fonts, colors, layout – everything is just perfect. You would think this would be one of the top-selling apps out there.

Not quite. A mere three stars out of 20 reviews? What went wrong? Let’s take a look at some of the reviews.

This app is quite visually appealing, but it has some issues that make it harder to use. You cannot add trips more than 3 days in the future (hard when you want to put an literary in). You can’t swipe between flights.

First, the app is stunningly beautiful. It’s simply a joy to look at. But it’s missing some basic functionality. First, there is no way to swipe between cards. You need to menu back to list view and choose the next card. Not so big a deal except for the page dots at the top. You can tap the dots and they will change as if you’re changing cards, but you don’t change cards. And the dots are maddeningly hard to hit.

It seems that while the visual design is off the charts, the user experience is terrible. (I haven’t used the app, I’m only going on what the reviews say) This is perhaps an extreme example, but I’m trying to point out that a bad user experience means a bad app.


At the moment the popular approach is the design approach. No doubt about it. I think from a client’s point of view this is regarded as the ‘safe’ approach. Because we start out with the design and do pretty much the entire design up front it’s guaranteed – we have a good idea of what the final application will look like, even though we don’t know exactly how it will work.

The user experience approach is perhaps considered to be the ‘risky’ approach. We don’t have a good idea of what the application will look like – we only know that we will get much more input into the design and the user experience as the application is built. We’re almost guaranteed to end up with a better user experience, but because we don’t have a good idea of what the final application will look like, it feels like we’re taking a risk.

History repeating itself?

I think we’re facing a similar challenge to the one we faced 10 to 15 years ago – when agile started being introduced. Clients felt safe with the waterfall approach – all the planning being done up front meant that we had a very good idea of what the software would look like in the end. Then agile came along and suggested that the initial idea is less important, and we should rather focus on refining this idea as we go along.

Selling agile 10 years ago was probably similar to selling the user experience today. I do think that approaching the user interface from a user experience point of view is inevitable – it simply makes the most sense from both the user’s and the client’s perspective.