Check out my new project, Practical Service Design!
User Experience at Hello Erik

UX is not UI: Three Year Retrospective

Posted December 19, 2015

Three years ago, on December 15th 2012, I wrote a blog post called “UX is not UI”. I had no goal or expectation. I didn’t have any real Twitter followers and just a small amount of blog traffic. It was just an instance of “blogging for yourself,” whatever that means. I made sure it wasn’t a rant and that the tone was upbeat and ended on a good note. I hit publish, and that was that, I figured I could tweet it to my 80 twitter followers the next day. I didn’t expect it to go anywhere.

But, before I could tweet it myself, an online-friend, UX speaker, and pseudo-mentor of mine, Elisabeth Hubert, tweeted it first to her some 2000 Twitter followers. I woke up to several thousand views and was like “what the…”. And that was that.

Since then, it has garnered 188,489 reads, which is around 172 a day. The little poster I made of it had been downloaded 45,112 times, or about 41 downloads a day. It’s been translated by others into multiple languages, ripped off word-for-word by many other bloggers, and that 2-column graphic is everywhere; it is the 2nd result in Google image search for “UX poster” and “UX UI”, and the 6th Google result for “UX UI”

What is most stunning to me is that over 3 years, the average time-on-page is 10 minutes. For my entire blog over those same 3 years, the site-wide average is 4 minutes between all 1,233,569 views in the same time period.

I’ve never given any thought to what impact this article might have had or who it could have influenced, inspired, or annoyed. Did it help anyone articulate what they needed to say to get board room support? Or give someone ideas on how to pivot their career? Did it help a hiring manager get a better idea of what they really should be looking for?


At the time, I was working as 1 of 2 UX designers at an enterprise software company, encryption management to be exact. If you want to talk about the ends of the earth UX landscape, just mix the common enterprise UX product design challenges, enterprise design culture and organizational challenges, and then encryption management subject matter challenges.

At the company, the concept of user centered design was well received. We all wanted to do it and everyone saw the value. But except for the few who implicitly understood user-centered design, the purpose of design was cast almost solely as UI sexiness. We lacked a serious capacity to move beyond just focusing UI design and towards something greater.


After about a year, I started to become frustrated. I was able to do more UX work in pockets, but I was cast as mostly a UI designer, and mostly our work was treated as such. It wasn’t that it was a bad place to be. I still have 2 good designer friends there. It was just very constrained and limited in what we could do. Putting an interface on top of the software was needed, and deeper UX work was secondary. We had to ship, we had to release, we had to do anything we could to make deadline promises.

So one day, I just started typing out a blog post that was my way of verbalizing what I would want people to understand about the difference between a user interface as a touchpoint, and UX design as a process and collection of user centered approaches. Almost like a journal entry, there was no goal. I had no expectation that it would ever be seriously read.

In Retrospect

I enjoy writing a great deal, and I wanted writing to be a huge part of my career. But like most successes, the post’s spread was a fluke. Right words, right place, right time. It had nothing to do with me personally and was nothing I could force or predict, I was just an anonymous designer in an enterprise company the general public has never heard of.

I’ve rarely re-read it since I wrote it; its whole voice feels so foreign to me. Some of the things listed in that 2-column diagram make me cringe. I could stealth edit it, but I think it rings true for the time. I was a different person then, and 3 Internet years is like 10 earth years.

If I were to do a “reprinted 2nd version”, I’d probably include more about working ranch empathy and learning first how the business had previously operated to stay alive. UX and user centered design isn’t a silver bullet. I would have added the fact that there’s more to business than delight, and sometimes keeping the lights on means deprioritizing design and experience. Or the harder truth, sometimes design and user experience isn’t what impacts the bottom line.

Thank You For Reading

In the end, I hope helped people in the same situation read something they could use to better articulate their thoughts, or create a better sales pitch to their own organizations. And I hope it helped a hiring manager get a better definition of the role they wanted to fill, and I hope that someone got a great UX job because of that hiring manager’s clarity.

It is curious that the post hasn’t lost any steam as we go into 2016. What does that say about UX understanding overall? Has understanding gotten better, but is a bigger pool now and that is why readership hasn’t died down? Is there just a Twitter spiral that is self-sustaining; more people tweet, so more people see it, so more people re-tweet it? Who knows.

What I do know is that by going with the title “UX is not UI” certainly got a lot of people’s attention.

I love all things experience design. I work as a Principal Service Experience Designer at Intuit in Mountain View, CA.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.