Head over to our on-demand library to view sessions from VB Transform 2023. Register Here

If you work in product development you hear a lot about user interface (UI) and user experience (UX). When people don’t really know what they are talking about, they use these terms interchangeably, along with buzz phrases like “human-centric design,” “process guided customer control groups,” and “brand-focused KPIs synergistic with user needs.” I made that last one up, but you get my point.

When terms are overused or misused, they lose meaning. It becomes like saying, “We should take a buttered-toast-first approach to usability testing.” Those are real words, but they don’t mean anything. Convoluted terms and bad processes make it easy to forget about making a great product that serves users’ needs.

UX is not UI

Ask about the difference between UX and UI at a design conference and you’ll get about a half dozen answers. Most of them overly analytical (insert long convoluted metaphor here) or passive (“The difference doesn’t really matter”).

But the answer is insanely simple. UI is the interface what the user interacts with from an iPhone app to a toaster. UX is the user experience. I know it’s tempting to say UX is just the user’s experience with the interface, but that’s wrong. UX is the end-to-end user experience.

A great interface can exist on a product that still offers a bad experience for users. Think about the ideal interface for the perfect toaster, but even with the elegant simplicity of the buttons and dial, and the super sexy brushed steel finish (I’ve thought about this before), your toast is always burned, because the lasers just doesn’t work.

To paraphrase Richard Brevig, the host and producer of Expose UX (a TV show about User Interface design with a name that adds to the confusion about the difference between UI and UX), “We want to help people design beautiful products no matter what. We can help you build an app that helps cats order tickets to Mars.”

Sure you could, but why would you? Part of a great experience is providing value. I don’t think you can give a great experience without solving a problem, being entertaining, or somehow, even in a small way, making the world a bit better for your users.

I agree with Geoffrey Byers, a design consultant whose clients have included NASA, Siemens, IBM and Intuit, who said, “User experience both encompasses and extends beyond the user interface. It includes touch points that exist beyond the visceral and transcends into the emotional. If we judge experiences solely by their interfaces we miss an incredibly important vector — empathy.”

To be clear, interface is a part of the user’s experience, and heuristics are important to any product development. I’m by no means saying reinvent the wheel every time and ignore heuristics, but…

Great product design answers 3 questions

If you want to build a better product you have to focus on the user’s overall experience from the beginning. Most people who’ve read a textbook on industrial design are familiar with the concept of creating personas of users. Then designing the product around those potential users.

I strongly recommend having user personas as a way to stay focused on your customers as you design and build. But before you go to the whiteboard and write “Sarah is a 23 year old dance instructor living in the Midwest …” ask yourself these three questions:

1. What are we trying to do?

No matter what you’re making, you (and your team) need to know why. A game has the goal of entertaining; utilities try to solve specific problems. If you’re not solving a problem or otherwise creating value, you have failed before you’ve started. Your product is by definition useless.

2. Do people want this?

You know what you’re trying to do. Now ask your customers if they want it. You may think building a social calendar is a great idea and everyone will want it, but if you ask people you’ll know for sure, and without having to write a line of code. Use this strategy to save millions on developing a product no one wants.

If no one likes your idea, find out why. Find out what your customers would use and explore that. You may be close to a viable idea.

3. Will people pay for this?

This is outside of the scope of building a product, but you can’t create a lasting product without a way to make money. Finding an amazing product you love that goes away after six months because the company went belly up is a pretty bad user experience.

But on a less altruistic level, you aren’t running a charity (unless you are), and you want to turn a profit (unless you don’t). If you’ve made an amazing product, but you have lots of free competitors, are you good enough that people will pay? Think about it, the Googles and Facebooks of the world can afford to offer loss leader products to build customer loyalty. You may not have that luxury.

The solution here is to forget all of the buzzwords and focus on designing something people like and want. And you do that not by employing abstract design roadmaps. You do that by asking users.

At this point, I can hear you saying, “Yeah, but it’s like Henry Ford said, ‘If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.’”

Well, first of all, there is no historical evidence Ford said anything like that. For more info, check out this article from Harvard Business Review. I did an Ignite talk at Dallas Startup Week, where I explained why, even if Ford had said those words made famous by morons justifying bad decisions, he was logically wrong. I also told the story of an entrepreneur who wasted six months of product development, because he, she, or they didn’t take an afternoon in a coffee shop to validate the product.

How to do a coffee-shop test

Given that statistically 90% of you didn’t click the video above, I think it’s worth explaining what I mean by testing in a coffee shop. Go to a coffee shop, mall, bar, any place people in your target market are, and talk to people. Sure, if you’re creating  a product doctors will use in hospitals, you may have some red tape to get hold of your target customers. But for consumer products you hope will be as ubiquitous as email, you can just ask anyone.

I’ve tested everything from explaining what an idea was in a 10-second pitch to showing sketches and asking if people can tell what an app would be. It’s not hard to start conversations most of the time. Just introduce yourself as someone who does product testing and market research who is willing to buy them a cup of coffee for five minutes of their time.

There are a few rules to help get better data.

1. Never say you’re the founder or person who came up with the idea.

People in coffee shops like coffee, and they tend to like someone who buys them coffee, too. Meaning they will automatically be biased to affirming your idea because you gave them free coffee. You have to be viewed as a neutral party — someone just gathering information; someone who wants to hear the best and worst feedback.

2. Don’t ask leading questions.

“I think this is the coolest app since Facebook. What do you think?” NO!!! You will bias your data. Stick to simple questions and explanations only when needed.

“I’m researching an idea for a product that helps people keep track of their keys.” Or even less leading, “Have you lost your keys in the last month?” If you find that only 1 out of 100 people lose their keys, you may not have a market, or you may need to turn to mass surveys for research.

If you have a demo product or a sketch of a product, don’t tell them what it does. Tell them you’d like to show them a product and see what they think. If I’m showing a sketch of an iPhone app, I say something like, “This is the opening screen of an iPhone app that is being worked on. Do you know what it does?”

3. There are no wrong answers, only feedback.

For many this will be the hardest rule. If someone says they don’t need a product or don’t know what yours does, that’s feedback. It may be an outlier, or it may become a trend. But, no matter what, you cannot argue or sell at the same time as gathering useful feedback, otherwise you blow your cover and end the hope of keeping the respondent objective in their commentary.

I’ve been in rooms with many people who have torn my ideas apart without knowing they were mine. I wanted to argue or explain and try to justify why the product was made that way, but that would have stopped me from learning how to improve. Test, learn and iterate. This process of testing and iteration should begin at the idea stage, continue at wireframes, keep going with prototypes, and stop only when the product no longer exists.

So, get going!

That’s how you figure out UI and UX. It’s not about the buzzwords, it’s about the human connection. Get out of those two-hour design meetings and into the real world with real potential customers. As Brandon Mendelson puts it, “go outside and buy your customers a beer.

Mason Pelt is a marketing and product development consultant who now assumes the title growth hacker as founder of Push ROI. His past clients include CoverGirl, Gillette, and Chevy as well as numerous startups. 

VentureBeat's mission is to be a digital town square for technical decision-makers to gain knowledge about transformative enterprise technology and transact. Discover our Briefings.