What is User Interface Design?

By BrainStation June 13, 2016

The job boom in tech has led to a number of diverse, highly specialized job roles. For those not currently working in tech, it can be tough to know what any given job or role means. In this article, I’m going to talk about UI design – how it fits into the workplace, and who should know how to do it.

What is UI design?

There are a few terms to know. A digital product is a software application or website that a human being uses to accomplish a goal (or set of goals). The UI, or User Interface, of a digital product, is the touchpoint where a human being interacts with that software. Uber, for example, is a phone app, as well as networked software system that connects passengers to drivers. Uber, taken as a whole, is a digital product. The screen that pops up when you press the Uber icon on your phone, the maps and animated cars and input fields that let you tell the app where you are and where you need to go – all of that is the UI.


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UI designers (wait for it) design the UI. They meticulously arrange buttons and sliders and images, pixel by pixel. They make sure that their product looks good on every screen it ends up on – whether for phones, tablets, computers, Chrome, Firefox, or Safari. They also pay attention to things like accessibility, ensuring products are designed in such a way that people who are (for example) color blind can use them.

Who should learn UI design?

People with an affinity for aesthetics and a passion for technology.

Digital design – the ability to make apps and websites that are crisp, beautiful and accessible – is a specific skill set. Being an amazing illustrator (for example) might help you understand what looks good and what doesn’t, but digital design isn’t just about looking good – it involves a little more than that. It’s rooted in a pragmatic set of processes that help your creations function and communicate. It’s possible to have a resume that doesn’t include any digital work at all – which is fine if you aren’t applying for tech jobs. If you want to work in tech, it is worth having portfolio pieces that showcase a mastery over (specifically) digital skills.

People with technical backgrounds who want to do front-end development.

There are a few reasons UI design might be relevant to your work. There is obviously a lot of interaction between front-end development and a product’s user interface. Digital designers need to have some understanding of technical requirements, and developers need to have some grasp of UI principles. Communication and collaboration with other members of your team are important. If you’re working on the front-end of a product, generally the more you know the better.

If you’re working on your own personal projects, or as part of a small start-up, you might have to do more than work with a UI designer – you might have to be the UI designer, even if visual design is far outside your comfort zone. The good news is that for a lot of digital design work, simply knowing how to use design tools, and understanding industry best practices, is enough to create simple, clean, functional UI. There are a lot of amazingly creative digital visionaries, whose design work delights, amazes, and raises the bar. You don’t need to be an amazingly creative digital visionary to design a robust UI that looks pretty good though.

This is a long list. Can we take a break?

We’re almost done, but sure! Here’s One Direction’s “You and I” to hold you over.

A modern classic! Now, who else should learn UI design?

UX Designers.

People who already work in tech are reading this, rolling their eyes, and saying, “well, yeah” (actually, some of them are saying “no way!” – but even if your job doesn’t require you to work on the UI design yourself, it’s still important to understand the fundamentals). For those not in the know, UX stands for User Experience. A concise explanation of what a UX designer does is that they intelligently lay out the blueprint for the user’s experience – which includes mapping out the UI. The two skillsets are so complementary that they are frequently conjoined into one job in the workplace.


You seem interested. After all, you made it this far. BrainStation offers a few different ways to start learning UI design. We’re always putting on events, if you’re interested a little bit more of a hands-on demo. We offer part-time evening classes for those interested in brushing up on UI basics. For those ready to dive into the deep end, we offer a UX design bootcamp, designed to jumpstart a career into UX/UI design.