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IA vs. UX vs. UI – what’s the difference?

Tomasz Pieńczak Illustrator

The creation of a project for a software product, such as e.g. mobile application, consists of many work stages. Designers are responsible for creation of IA, UX and UI structures among others. All these abbreviations sound similar so what exactly is the difference between them and what is the scope of responsibilities of designers depending on their specialisation? 

UX Design (User Experience Design)

UX designers are the people responsible for designing a method in which the user will use the app. They do not focus on specific things such as graphic view of the interface, colours or typography, but they think about how the user will navigate between each of the screens of the app and what options should be available for them in these screens. For instance: an app which helps the users create a list of tasks has to contain a screen with a list of tasks. A UX designer does not concentrate in the first place on what the interface should look like, but rather he focuses on what the user should be able to achieve from this screen, meaning that in the case of our app, they should have the possibility of e.g. adding another task to do, marking a task as done, removing a task from the list, assigning a task to a subgroup, etc. Of course, each functionality can be visualised in a very basic way, this is why UX designers create wireframes, views containing more or less advanced layout sketches for each of the screens (low/medium fidelity mock-ups).

Using tools such as Axure, UXPin or InVision, wireframes are connected with each other, creating interactive, clickable prototypes. These prototypes are used during the first tests with users. They do not contain any photographs, colours or polished typography, but they allow for checking if even without an attractive visual form, the user can perform actions that we want. In our case, we check i.a. if the user knows where to click in order to add subsequent task to the list or if he can edit the contents of the task.

Good UX is an invisible one, therefore UX designers must first and foremost, get to know the user they design for, so that they can respond to their needs in the best possible way. 

This is why apart from prototyping, UX designers are also held responsible for i.a:

  • Competitor analysis
  • User personas creation
  • Usability audit for existing productsexample

IA (Information Architecture)

Information architecture is a way in which hierarchy and substantive contents are organised. A well-organised hierarchy of information helps the user focus on what is crucial which in turn leads them to take quicker and more successful actions. E.g. for a website advertising a new model of a phone the most important bit will be to present the key features of the model. However, the parameters description should not be too lengthy and detailed as the website will look as if was overloaded with information. The user will not be able to find what they are looking for, or they will quickly get bored with the long descriptions and will leave the page instead of proceeding to the purchasing process. The details should be made available for more inquisitive users, e.g. on separate webpages devoted to the new, improved camera or quicker processor. IA designers deal with analysis of complex contents and breakdown into smaller units, so that the people using the product could find the necessary information quicker. Of course, we are not talking only about the text, but also about the functionality groups in a way that the most important ones are available first. For an app with a list of tasks, the key element is the view of the list itself and options such as categorisation are important, but secondary. Thus, instead of trying to implement everything in one screen, we can dissect those functionalities into two separate views.

IA vs. UX vs. UI – what’s the difference? Illustration by Tomasz Pieńczak with a skater. IA vs. UX vs. UI – what’s the difference? Illustration: Tomasz Pieńczak.

We can observe that the scopes of work of UX and IA designers are similar, both types of specialists take care of designing the content division so that it is the most functional from the user’s point of view. IA is a part of UX. Yet we should remember that a UX designer includes a wider scope in their work. When designing an app, a UX designer examines to which extent the emotions and habits influence the decisions made by a given target group. 

The list of tasks will look differently for a lab worker than a list for a high school student. One will be more technical, there might appear detailed factors, whereas the other will be limited probably to a task, alternatively to a short description. However, both lists will have a similar content hierarchy, where the most important part will always be the content of the task and a marker signifying whether the task has been done or not.

UI Design (User Interface Design)

The relationship between UX and UI is much more visible. UI design, most similar to the traditional applied graphics creation, is for many a graphic designer just the beginning in the world of digital products design. UI designers are responsible for transferring the raw prototypes into the visual form which will be viewed finally by the user while using the product. The UI designer’s work requires practice and knowledge regarding the influence of colour, typography and layout on product’s conversion. The visual form must communicate well with the target group, addressing their needs. It does not mean that the project should be visually appealing (though you cannot do without it!). The interface should first and foremost enhance the UX product objectives, making the app or website usage simple and fully understandable for the user.

The tasks of UI designers are i.a.:

  • Designing of a cohesive visual style for entire project
  • Selection of photographs, graphics and other multimedia elements
  • Creation of advanced, interactive prototypes of the product
  • Provision of responsive versions of the project
  • Cooperation with developers during the implementation of the product

It is worth remembering that while working on the app, the line between different dimensions of designing is not clear, therefore the responsibilities of specialists interchange with each other, and sometimes even overlap. A good practice is the cooperation of designers which does not project complete separation of subsequent phases of the product development. Similar cooperation is also required between designers and developers, yet this is the subject for another article.

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