What Is User Interface (UI)?

Updated July 21, 2022

Business—and life in general—has become increasingly dependent on the internet, web apps and mobile apps. As a result, companies have found that the best way to compete on the web is to prioritize building an attractive and efficient user interface (UI) that optimizes the user experience (UX).

In this article, we define what user interface is, discuss elements of UI vs. UX and provide tips for creating an interface that converts users into customers.

What is user interface?

The user interface is the point at which human users interact with a computer, website or application. The goal of effective UI is to make the user's experience easy and intuitive, requiring minimum effort on the user's part to receive the maximum desired outcome.

UI is created in layers of interaction that appeal to the human senses (sight, touch, auditory and more). They include both input devices like a keyboard, mouse, trackpad, microphone, touch screen, fingerprint scanner, e-pen and camera, and output devices like monitors, speakers and printers. Devices that interact with multiple senses are called "multimedia user interfaces." For example, everyday UI uses a combination of tactile input (keyboard and mouse) and a visual and auditory output (monitor and speakers).

Other types of user interfaces can include:

  • Form-based user interface: Used to enter data into a program or application by offering a limited selection of choices. For example, a settings menu on a device is form-based.

  • Graphical user interface: A tactile UI input with a visual UI output (keyboard and monitor).

  • Menu-driven user interface: A UI that uses a list of choices to navigate within a program or website. For example, ATMs use menu-driven UIs and are easy for anyone to use.

  • Touch user interface: User interface through haptics or touch. Most smartphones, tablets and any device that operates using a touch screen use haptic input.

  • Voice user interface: Interactions between humans and machines using auditory commands. Examples include virtual assistant devices, talk-to-text and GPS.

Read more: What Is UI?

Why is user interface important?

User interface is important to meet user expectations and support the effective functionality of your site. A well-executed user interface facilitates effective interaction between the user and the program, app or machine through contrasting visuals, clean design and responsiveness.

When designing a UI for your site, it's important to consider the user's expectations in terms of accessibility, visual aesthetic and ease of use. An optimal mix of effective visuals and efficient responsiveness will improve your site's conversion rates, as it anticipates the needs of the user and then satisfies those needs.

Related: What Is Front End UI? Definition and Uses

More specifically, here are the most important overarching elements of a great UI:

  • Information architecture: The functionality of a site is built according to the IA. Structuring and organizing your website's content in a logical way is important to help users navigate the site with minimal effort. Components of IA include three main types of organizational structures: hierarchical (level of importance), sequential (logical order of steps) and matrix (in which the user chooses the organization of the content they see).
    Example: Navigation elements (buttons, tabs, icons), labels (terminology), search features (search bar) and organization systems (categories).

  • Interactive design: Elements of ID aim to turn passive readers into active participants by presenting instances of user input. Keeping the user in mind while creating the UI will help to improve the interactivity and execution of specific behaviors that satisfy user needs. Additionally, efficiently-designed interactive UIs can 'learn' to anticipate and remedy any problems that may come up before they negatively impact the user's experience.
    Example: Social-share features, toggles, buttons.

  • Visual design: The importance of your site's aesthetic value cannot be underestimated. Effective design utilizes color, contrast, font, video and photo elements to attract visitors and make it easy for them to read and works with the content, rather than around it, to create a logical, intuitive flow of functionality.
    Example: Contrast, color, white space, typography, mobile optimization.

Related: Learn About Being a Front End Developer

User interface vs. user experience

User interface and user experience are related and equally important to the execution of a project, but the specifics differ. Mainly, UI is designed around the intended look and feel of the site, app or program while UX spans the entire process of conceptualization, development and delivery. Additionally, UX can be referenced in relation to nearly any product, while UI can only pertain to digital products.

The main differences between UX and UI are:

  • UX revolves around the purpose and functionality of the product, while UI focuses on the quality of the user's interaction with the product.

  • UX involves components such as market research and identifying user needs, while UI has more artistic design components relating to the look and feel of the user's experience.

  • UX focuses on overall project management from ideation through development and delivery, while UI more specifically focuses on the design of the finished product.

Designing a user experience begins by identifying the pain points of the target users and figuring out how to meet the needs of said users. This includes details such as logical flows or steps to take to reach a goal. Once the interface is programmed to be useful, the prototype is sent to a user interface designer, where the processes are made visually appealing.

Related: What Is Interaction Design in UX Development?

Developing a user experience includes:

  • Overall execution and goal-tracking

  • Coordination with developers and UI designers

  • Integration and analytics

  • Content or product strategy

  • Wireframing, planning, prototyping, development, testing

Developing a user interaction includes:

  • Look and feel of the site/app/program

  • Branding and design research

  • Responsive adaptation

  • Interactivity, animation

  • Implementation

Related: Learn About Being a UX Designer

14 tips for creating good user interfaces

An ideal UI design should be based on the UX. It should have an attractive, unique appearance; a logical structure; and be easy for users to understand. It's trickier than it sounds. Even after the UI design is perfected, there will inevitably be a lot of debugging and fine-tuning involved once it goes live. Follow these tips to create an effective user interface:

  1. Be mindful of contrast: Making sure there is simplicity and sufficient contrast between text and background colors makes reading much easier.

  2. Design for responsiveness: A website should always be adaptable to the screen it's being viewed on, whether it's a 7-inch mobile phone or a 70-inch TV.

  3. Experiment with design: Build exploration into the project's lead time to give yourself a chance to discover new elements of design that can make your end product exceptionally unique and pleasurable to use.

  4. Focus on usability: Make sure users can use your site/app/program intuitively, even if they're visiting for the first time.

  5. Keep it consistent: Pick a design and stick with it throughout the project. Each page of the site should be laid out the same way to avoid any confusion or frustration in the user's experience.

  6. Keep relevance in mind: The interface should be conducive to an overall experience that is pleasant, easy and informative.

  7. Know your target user: It can be easy to let the overall goal get lost in the minutiae of the design process but what you're designing is for the user and therefore should be user-focused.

  8. Maintain branding: Your user should be able to identify your brand on every page of your site and new users should be able to recognize your brand upon their first visit.

  9. Make it easy on the eyes: Pay attention to the ease of readability through the layout. For example, keep text edge-aligned, keep a limited color palette and choose a font that's easy to read.

  10. Make it easy overall: Performing tasks should require minimal effort on the user's part and each page should serve one main function.

  11. Proofread: You'll want your finished product to be presented to your users free of any errors.

  12. Provide logical next steps: Your UI design should allow users to intuitively figure out what to do next.

  13. Remain predictable: Elements like buttons, pinch zoom and other interactive elements should function as expected. Every element should have a meaningful function.

  14. Use dynamic effects judiciously: User interaction is the goal, but over-using interactive elements can be overwhelming. If they're not even super useful the user can be turned off from the whole thing. These effects, rather, should be used to optimize the user's experience.

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