Co.Design

UI, UX: Who Does What? A Designer's Guide To The Tech Industry

Plus: How Apple, Facebook, Google, and more tech-world heavyweights describe their design jobs.

Design is a rather broad and vague term. When someone says "I'm a designer," it is not immediately clear what they actually do day to day. There are a number of different responsibilities encompassed by the umbrella term designer.

Design-related roles exist in a range of areas from industrial design (cars, furniture) to print (magazines, other publications) to tech (websites, mobile apps). With the relatively recent influx of tech companies focused on creating interfaces for screens, many new design roles have emerged. Job titles like UX or UI designer are confusing to the uninitiated and unfamiliar even to designers who come from other industries.

Let's attempt to distill what each of these titles really mean within the context of the tech industry.

UX Designer (User Experience Designer)

UX designers are primarily concerned with how the product feels. A given design problem has no single right answer. UX designers explore many different approaches to solving a specific user problem. The broad responsibility of a UX designer is to ensure that the product logically flows from one step to the next. One way that a UX designer might do this is by conducting in-person user tests to observe one's behavior. By identifying verbal and non-verbal stumbling blocks, they refine and iterate to create the "best" user experience. An example project is creating a delightful onboarding flow for a new user.

"Define interaction models, user task flows, and UI specifications. Communicate scenarios, end-to-end experiences, interaction models, and screen designs to stakeholders. Work with our creative director and visual designers to incorporate the visual identity of Twitter into features. Develop and maintain design wireframes, mockups, and specifications as needed."

-Experience Designer job description at Twitter

Example of an app's screens created by a UX designer.Credit: Kitchenware Pro Wireframe Kit by Neway Lau on Dribbble.

Deliverables: Wireframes of screens, storyboards, sitemap

Tools of the trade: Photoshop, Sketch, Illustrator, Fireworks, InVision

You might hear them say this in the wild
: "We should show users the 'Thank You' page once they have finished signing up."

UI Designer (User Interface Designer)

Unlike UX designers who are concerned with the overall feel of the product, user interface designers are particular about how the product is laid out. They are in charge of designing each screen or page with which a user interacts and ensuring that the UI visually communicates the path that a UX designer has laid out. For example, a UI designer creating an analytics dashboard might front load the most important content at the top, or decide whether a slider or a control knob makes the most intuitive sense to adjust a graph. UI designers are also typically responsible for creating a cohesive style guide and ensuring that a consistent design language is applied across the product. Maintaining consistency in visual elements and defining behavior such as how to display error or warning states fall under the purview of a UI designer.

"Concept and implement the visual language of Airbnb.com. Create and advance site-wide style guides."

-UI Designer job description at Airbnb

The boundary between UI and UX designers is fairly blurred and it is not uncommon for companies to opt to combine these roles.

A UI designer defines the overall layout and look & feel of an app. Credit: Metro Style Interface 4 by Ionut Zamfir on Dribbble.

Tools of the trade: Photoshop, Sketch, Illustrator, Fireworks

You might hear them say this in the wild: "The login and sign up links should be moved to the top right corner."


Visual Designer (Graphic Designer)

A visual designer is the one who pushes pixels. If you ask a non-designer what a designer does, this is probably what comes to mind first. Visual designers are not concerned with how screens link to each other, nor how someone interacts with the product. Instead, their focus is on crafting beautiful icons, controls, and visual elements and making use of suitable typography. Visual designers sweat the small details that others overlook and frequently operate at the 4X to 8X zoom level in Photoshop.

"Produce high-quality visual designs—from concept to execution, including those for desktop, web, and mobile devices at a variety of resolutions (icons, graphics, and marketing materials). Create and iterate on assets that reflect a brand, enforce a language, and inject beauty and life into a product."

-Visual Designer job description at Google

It is also fairly common for UI designers to pull double duty and create the final pixel perfect assets. Some companies choose not to have a separate visual designer role.

A visual designer lays out guides and adjusts every single pixel to ensure that the end result is perfect. Credits: iOS 7 Guide Freebie PSD by Seevi kargwal on Dribbble.

Tools of the trade: Photoshop, Sketch

You might hear them say this in the wild: "The kerning is off and the button should be 1 pixel to the left!"

Interaction Designer (Motion Designer)

Remember the subtle bouncing animation when you pull to refresh in the Mail app on your iPhone? That's the work of a motion designer. Unlike visual designers who usually deal with static assets, motion designers create animation inside an app. They deal with what the interface does after a user touches it. For example, they decide how a menu should slide in, what transition effects to use, and how a button should fan out. When done well, motion becomes an integral part of the interface by providing visual clues as to how to use the product.

"Proficiency in graphic design, motion graphics, digital art, a sensitivity to typography and color, a general awareness of materials/textures, and a practical grasp of animation. Knowledge of iOS, OS X, Photoshop and Illustrator as well as familiarity with Director (or equivalent), Quartz Composer (or equivalent), 3D computer modeling, motion graphics are required."

-Interaction Designer job description at Apple

Tools of the trade: AfterEffects, Core Composer, Flash, Origami

You might hear them say this in the wild:"The menu should ease-in from the left in 800ms."


UX Researcher (User Researcher)

A UX researcher is the champion of a user's needs. The goal of a researcher is to answer the twin questions of "Who are our users?" and "What do our users want?" Typically, this role entails interviewing users, researching market data, and gathering findings. Design is a process of constant iteration. Researchers may assist with this process by conducting A/B tests to tease out which design option best satisfies user needs. UX researchers are typically mainstays at large companies, where the access to a plethora of data gives them ample opportunity to draw statistically significant conclusions.


"Work closely with product teams to identify research topics. Design studies that address both user behavior and attitudes. Conduct research using a wide variety of qualitative methods and a subset of quantitative methods, such as surveys."

-UX Researcher job description at Facebook

UX designers also occasionally carry out the role of UX researchers.

Deliverables: User personas, A/B test results, Investigative user studies & interviews

Tools of the trade: Mic, Paper, Docs

You might hear them say this in the wild: "From our research, a typical user..."

Front-End Developer (UI Developer)

Front-end developers are responsible for creating a functional implementation of a product's interface. Usually, a UI designer hands off a static mockup to the front-end developer who then translates it into a working, interactive experience. Front-end developers are also responsible for coding the visual interactions that the motion designer comes up with.

Tools of the trade: CSS, HTML, JavaScript

You might hear them say this in the wild: "I'm using a 960px 12-column grid system."

Product Designer

Product designer is a catch-all term used to describe a designer who is generally involved in the creation of the look and feel of a product.

The role of a product designer isn't well-defined and differs from one company to the next. A product designer may do minimal front-end coding, conduct user research, design interfaces, or create visual assets. From start to finish, a product designer helps identify the initial problem, sets benchmarks to address it, and then designs, tests, and iterates on different solutions. Some companies that want more fluid collaboration within the various design roles opt to have this title to encourage the whole design team to collectively own the user experience, user research, and visual design elements.

Some companies use "UX designer" or simply "designer" as a catch-all term. Reading the job description is the best way to figure out how the company's design team divides the responsibilities.

"Own all facets of design: interaction, visual, product, prototyping. Create pixel-perfect mocks and code for new features across web and mobile."

-Product Designer job description at Pinterest

"I am looking for a designer"

This is the single most common phase I hear from new startups. What they are usually looking for is someone who can do everything described above. They want someone who can make pretty icons, create A/B tested landing sites, logically arrange UI elements on screen, and maybe even do some front-end development. Due to the broad sweeping scope of this role, we usually hear smaller companies asking to hire a "designer" rather than being specific in their needs.

The boundaries between each of these various design roles are very fluid. Some UX designers are also expected to do interaction design, and often UI designers are expected to push pixels as well. The best way to look for the right person is to describe what you expect the designer to do within your company's process, and choose a title that best represents the primary task of that person.

A version of this article originally appeared here. It was republished with permission.

[Image: Abstract via Shutterstock, GIF: An interaction designer is responsible for deciding how the menu should fan out. Credit: iOS Menu Concept by Jeremey Fleischer on Dribbble.]

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86 Comments

  • kobejames72

    Why is FastCo re-posting content like this? It's not fair to readers or the author. Poor choice guys. Dilute the brand even further...

  • The titles stuff is total mess in our industry. One thing you actually got really wrong here is interaction designer. Interaction designer has hardly anything to do with fine-tuning motion graphics as you suggest.

    Roughly: UX Designer is an umbrella role that covers interaction design, user research, information architecture, UI Design, Visual Design (even a bit of web Front-end) and some others too. Many UX Designers have skills and thinking that comes from spreading the gospel of usablilty, then it has spread to different titles (as listed above). Usability professionals, interaction designers and information architects were titles that some people blended into UX Designer.

    Where I come from UI designer means "a person who designs how the user interface works" and is understood as combination of IA and IxD. In USA, people seem to label UI Designer as something we'd call Visual Interaction Designer. My team has UX Designers (=UR, IxD, IA), visual designers and devs.

  • Eric Trung Dung Nguyen

    Thanks for the interesting sharing :)

    I have 2 questions though: 1) UI Designer seems to be confused with Visual/ Graphic Designer here Shouldn't the UI designer be familiar with wireframes too? 2) Now that we are clear about the roles, how do these people work together as a team? What is the recommended procedure e.g. step n: UX designer passes the wireframes to the UI designer...?

  • donna.stratten38

    These describe information architects, not user experience designers. A UX designer works closely with an IA, taking the wire frames and bringing them to life by improving upon them. The UX Designer must use design principals, balancing composition, interaction design and maintaining usability to create the complete visual, visceral and interactive experience. According to these descriptions, the companies here don't even know what they are looking for let alone what UX is.

  • salzer.analytics

    Thanks for the good stuffs about designs, varieties and its nature of responsibilities. Nowadays the value of design domain is getting realized and things have changed a lot. By witnessing that, several companies have propel the importance of UI-UX design elements in the projects.

  • The distinctions between roles and responsibilities in digital product design are blurry, to say the least, but unfortunately this article does nothing to help that. In fact, it does a disservice to anyone trying to understand design roles and processes. Instead of discussing where these roles overlap and blur into each other, the article often says these roles actually have clear-cut definitions. They don't.

    Moreover, the article gets some stuff just wrong: I've been practicing, managing, and teaching interaction design for 20 years, and I've never heard anyone in the field define it as being about "motion graphics". And to call a visual designer a "pixel pusher" is just plain arrogant.

    This is the only useful line in the article:

    "Reading the job description is the best way to figure out how the company's design team divides the responsibilities."

    In other words, ignore this article and read the job description.

  • I'm not surprised at the mixed comments because front end design/development is subject to revolutionary change right now.

    I'm NOT a designer (I'm a developer) and claim no expertise here but I'd recommend anyone working in or hiring for these roles to learn some web skills.

    In the multi-device world it's useful to have an understanding of how designs are implemented. You might find a traditional design tool like Photoshop has been superseded by the advances in browser capability and knowing a little HTML, CSS and JavaScript will benefit in the long run.

  • Andrew Cramer

    Would have been great to see a similar description for Information Architects!

  • hiromigas

    A graphic designer should know what goes where, why and how, the user experience, your target audience, has always been our drive to think and think some more. A good graphic designer is all of the above, even if he had never seen a computer or a website, even if you extracted him from a time travel trip to the 50s or earlier. Tell Toulouse-Lautrec or Picasso about UI or UX and they would tell you to watch an learn while they come up with the goods, just brief them right. Just call us Graphic Designers. Our job is not as easy as it may look.

  • I think these labels should apply to the design process not to the designers. Designers need to reject and fight this industry-defined specializations. All good designers would want to and be able to do all of the above. Yes, each designer might have one particular area that they are more proficient than others, but it doesn't mean as a designer we don't need to be able to do them all. Collaboration with other well-rounded designers would also be more productive and efficient.

  • geebostew

    I expect these very specific designations are more likely to exist in big corporations where there are many people involved in the production process. It's likely that there are several actual graphic designers who manage a whole bunch of hired techs, to whom they assign chunks of the process, and to whom they give designations like these to- a) better keep track of who is doing what, and b) to give the techs a 'title' that sounds cool enough to tell their friends and helps them forget that they're making only a dollar an hour above minimum wage...

  • Nicole R Carter

    Thank You Geebostew, because you are so correct in your statement above. So a graphic designer like myself who has been in the industry for 15 years should go back to school to learn all this crap, spend how much money to take the courses, and then come out in the end to make less than what I was making 15 years ago as a junior designer, bc graphic design jobs or whatever you want to call them are certainly not paying much more than minimum wage these days. Like, give me a break!