Last updated: UX vs UI vs CX: What’s the difference and why is each so important?

UX vs UI vs CX: What’s the difference and why is each so important?


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UX vs UI vs CX – what’s the difference and why is each one so important?

When it comes to commerce, especially digital commerce, we hear a lot of terms used to describe experience and how it relates to users or customers. These are often used interchangeably and can mean different things to different people.

In trying to understand what these terms mean, one of the main challenges is that there aren’t actually any official definitions. If you Google the terms, you’ll find a variety of definitions proposed by hosts of experts.

While I’m certainly not the ultimate authority on these subjects, I have spent two decades consulting with many different brands on digital commerce, and therefore I’ve tried to explain my definitions of UX, UI, and CX within this article.

UX vs UI vs CX: Time is a flat circle (Okay, we’re actually discussing concentric circles)

In trying to consider each of these terms, it can help to visualize them as concentric circles, starting with UI in the center and working outwards into UX, then finally into CX.

This visualization defines UI as a subset of UX which, itself, is a subset of CX. They are definitely different things, but are very closely related to, and have a dependence on, one another.


UI (User Interface) defined

Let’s consider what UI actually literally means. In the simplest of terms, user interface (UI) is defined as the means by which a human interacts with a device, system, software, or application. Put another way, it is the interface with which a user interacts with a brand at any given point in their journey.

The obvious example of this is the checkout part of a website. The form fields the user fills in and the buttons that they click on form the UI. A less obvious example would be the shelves that goods are placed on in a physical store, the physical basket that the customer puts groceries into, or the self-checkout.

These are all things that the user uses to interface with the brand during their particular journey.

UI is certainly not UX. It doesn’t reflect the entirety of a user’s experience during a particular journey, but it is one (or multiple) elements that are part of that user’s experience.

If we look at the example of someone driving to a supermarket to purchase groceries, they’ll interact with multiple user interfaces during their customer journey.

They’ll park and maybe need to purchase a ticket from a machine, probably use a basket or cart, are likely to take goods from a shelf, and they’re going to go through a checkout. All of these interfaces are separate and physically very different from one another, but they all form part of a single customer journey across a single channel and will influence the user’s overall experience.

UX (User Experience) defined

User experience is often the term that I find is most confused. Many different definitions of this term exist and a quick Google search can leave you more confused than you were before you looked. (This is where most confusion around UX vs UI exists).

For me, user experience (UX) is the overall experience a user has with a brand when interacting with its products, services, or systems during a journey across a single channel (this is one important distinction). The overall UX with a brand involves a broad range of aspects like: usability, accessibility, findability, desirability, credibility, performance, design/aesthetics, utility, ergonomics, and value. Furthermore, a user experience will probably involve multiple UIs which are used at different stages of that journey.

We often think of websites when we think of UX, but it applies to all touch points a brand has with a customer and all of their journeys.

Let’s, again, consider the example of a customer visiting a grocery store. Their user experience was affected by how easy it was to park, how easy it was to find the goods they required, the layout of the store, how tall the shelves were, how crowded the store was, and how easy it was to checkout. It could even be affected by how easy it is to return an item later on.

All of the user interfaces they interact with throughout this journey matter, and all have an impact on the user experience.

If we now consider the example of someone buying from the same retailer online, the journey will be very different using a different set of UIs.

They’ll visit the website, either at the homepage or a deeper link, browse, add to the basket, and checkout. One key thing to consider here is that their journey does not finish with the checkout. There’s an order confirmation email, a delivery, a possible interaction with customer services, and maybe a return.

All of these are part of a journey and a user experience, but, crucially, this is a different UX than when they visit the retailer in person, as, in this definition, a user experience is confined within a single channel. Therefore, a user can have multiple experiences with the same brand, with each experience using multiple UIs.

Each of the UIs that contribute to a user experience is important. I’m sure we’ve all used a frustrating UI at one point or another during a journey with a brand. A poor UI can ruin an otherwise positive UX (think of many supermarket self-checkouts when they were first introduced – you could have a great shopping experience until the point at which you tried to checkout and ended up leaving the store frustrated).

CX (Customer Experience) defined

We’ve seen that a user experience can be influenced by multiple user interfaces and a user can have multiple experiences with a single brand.

Customer Experience (CX) is the perception that consumers have of your brand as a whole, spanning all aspects of the customer journey. It is the sum total of all experiences that a customer has with a business or brand across all touchpoints and interactions over the duration of their relationship.

Customers don’t see channels as different and siloed businesses. The brand is the brand. If we shop with a retailer in store and online, we may have two completely different user experiences, but the sum of all of those experiences is our customer experience.

This is why every single touch point and user experience matters. It’s no good to have a great in-store experience but a poor online one, or vice versa. It’s no good to have a great website but a poor delivery experience.

If your 3rd party delivery driver throws the package containing a fragile item over the fence, the customer is going to blame you, and this is going damage your overall CX, no matter how good the purchasing experience was.

If we consider the examples of shopping with a supermarket in store and online but also add the email marketing I receive from them, the petrol I purchase from them, the TV adverts I see, as well as other services such as insurance and credit that I buy from them, all of these separate journeys, touch points, and user experiences form the customer experience.

UI is part of UX is part of CX

UX, UI, and CX are very different to one another, but are intrinsically linked and wholly dependent on one another.

A customer experience is the sum of all touchpoints and user experiences that a customer has with a brand. User experiences are contained within a single channel, so most brands will provide customers with multiple user experiences.

A UI is simply the interface with which the user will interact with a brand at a particular point of a journey. Most user experiences will involve multiple user interfaces and a customer experience will be made up of all touchpoints and user experiences across all channels.

In summary, when it comes to UX vs UI, you can’t have a good CX without a good UX, and you can’t have a good UX without a good UI.

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