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How to Become a UI Designer

What Is a UI Designer?

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A UI Designer — or User Interface Designer — designs all the screens through which a user will move while using a website, app, or video game, while also creating the visual design elements that make this movement possible.

Because UI design is a subset of UX design (user experience design), UI and UX are often wrongfully used interchangeably and outsiders to the industry might not understand the difference between a UI and UX Designer. Although they both share a goal – ensuring a positive user experience – UI design is in fact a different part of the UX design journey and is hugely important in its own right.

What Are UI Design Job Responsibilities?

UI design professionals are responsible for creating, designing, and organizing interactive elements, usually in close collaboration with UX Designers who will have mapped out a vision for the project.

Depending on seniority and the specific work situation – for instance, whether someone is part of an in-house design team for a company, working for an agency with clients to please, or working freelance – UI and UX Designers usually work in close collaboration with a Product Designer and possibly a client at the beginning of the design process, going over questions about functionality, visual design, and the desired look and feel.

Exactly how much input a UI expert has into this initial phase of the design process does depend largely on seniority. Senior UI design professionals might take the lead on conjuring up ideas for what visual elements will work best, while it’s likely that someone in an entry-level UI design role would likely not have much input into the look and feel of the site, instead of focusing on storyboards, sitemaps and process flows.

As the design process continues, UI design pros are responsible for taking the insights unearthed by user research and personas – typically the territory of UX Designers – and running with it. Armed with that information, it's time to work on user interfaces by crafting interactive design elements like buttons, tabs, menus, widgets, scrollbars, sliders, and search fields. Depending again on the role and seniority, a UI pro might also have input on fonts, layouts, color, graphic design elements, images, animations, and icons.

During this design phase, a UI design professional might be responsible for all of the following:

  • Creating and enforcing a style guide – or visual language – to ensure consistency across the board.

  • Designing every individual screen the user might interact with, making decisions about which layout and visual design elements will help create the most intuitive-possible user experience?

  • Designing the interactivity of each user interface (UI) element.

  • Creating animations.

  • Ensuring that a layout will work well across a range of different screen sizes.

Once those designs are in place, it’s testing time – and that means prototyping. Prototypes allow UI design experts to see their visual designs in action, and subsequently, quickly spot problems and polish any rough spots. Prototyping and testing are an essential part of user interface design workflow.

Depending on the project and which phase of the design process they’re in, a UI Designer might use the following three different types of prototypes:

  • Low-fidelity wireframes. Quickly sketching user flows on paper or a whiteboard is the cheapest and fastest way to convey a design idea.

  • Clickable prototypes. Now that screen layout, the user journey, and overall visual design is set, a clickable prototype – a static screen with at least a medium level of detail – can be created.

  • High-fidelity prototypes. When it's time to finalize designs before handing them off to developers, high-fidelity prototypes with advanced interactions can be created that should closely resemble the finished product.

UI Designers have plenty of prototyping tools to choose from. InVision and Sketch are popular prototyping tools (they’re also helpful if you need to design wireframes). If the prototyping needs are more advanced, they might turn to Proto.io, Principle, Flinto, or ProtoPie.

Where Do UI Designers Come From?

Because user interface design is such an interdisciplinary field, UI Designers tend to have a variety of educational and professional backgrounds, but certainly, a history of working in or studying design or web development would help.

Most job postings for UI roles do require a degree, but they aren’t specific about the type of degree you need because there is no college degree program that teaches user interface design or conveys the practical and technical skills you would need to begin working on user interfaces.

Many UI Designers also choose to enroll in certification courses in user interface design, whether online or in-person. In a short period of time, these courses promise to provide all the skills needed to get hired in the UI design field, while also giving you the chance to polish your portfolio under the guidance of industry professionals.

And ultimately that’s what you'll need to get hired: to prove you have the necessary UI design skills and being able to show off a killer portfolio.

Characteristics of a Successful UI Designer

Successful UI Designers tend to share a lot of the same characteristics, including a strong understanding of design, empathy for their users, and a mastery of a mix of hard and soft skills.

As with UX design, UI design pros will interact and collaborate with many people from many different backgrounds within a company, as well as clients, users, and user research groups. To navigate all of those different interactions, a successful User Interface Designer will have top-notch communication skills. You'll need to be able to clearly and compellingly present their ideas (whether verbally or in writing), listen carefully to directions and feedback from other team members, clients, users, and test groups, and also communicate clearly through their designs.

Empathy is another crucial soft skill both for UI and UX Designers. You must be able to put yourself in the shoes of a user. You must understand how a user interacts with the product you’re designing. Research and testing will be a big help here, but your understanding of your target users needs to go deeper than that.

Good UI Designers will also be analytical problem-solvers. When it comes to designing user interfaces, small tweaks can have huge impacts, and being able to scrutinize projects for blemishes or opportunities is an essential quality.

UI Designers need to know how the layout, color, typography, interaction elements, and all other design elements will affect users and the user experience of a product.

The technical or hard skills necessary in UI design mostly center on wireframing and prototyping. UI Designers should be familiar with all the industry-leading wireframing and prototyping tools, as well as key design principles like interaction design, branding, and color theory.

UI Design Jobs

With the growth of the user interface design field, there are now many job titles with different day-to-day responsibilities all encompassed by UI Design. Let’s take a closer look.

  • User Experience (UX) Designer. UI and UX Designers are two roles that those outside of tech or design are constantly confusing. UX Designers work to make products usable, intuitive, and accessible. Usually, the UX design team works as part of a wider product team. UX design is all about advocating for users while also keeping in mind business goals and how to leverage their user research to identify opportunities.

  • User Interface (UI) Designer. The difference between UX and UI design is that user interface design applies UX principles to a product’s interface (for example a screen layout, sitemap, or a website’s menu). If UX design is all about the overall feel of the experience, UI design is about how the product’s interfaces function, look, and feel. A UX Designer considers the entire user journey while also considering all the visual elements of that user journey. UI Designers are also usually responsible for ensuring products are responsive, accessible, and inclusive.

  • Interaction Designer. Interaction design is the design of the interaction between end-users and products or services. Usually, interaction design is discussed in reference to an app or website. The goal of interaction design is to create a product that allows users to do what they want to in the best possible way. Interaction Designers are specifically focused on how users interact with the interface — how do the menus unfold? What is the response time when a user clicks a button?

  • Visual Designer. Experts in visual design will create a guide to define the aesthetics of all the buttons, icons, and backgrounds that a user sees. They also oversee resizing assets for different devices, creating email marketing items, presentation materials, and interactive event materials.

  • Information Architect. Information architecture is a science of organizing, arranging, and structuring content of a website or app, among other things. Information Architects decide how to arrange the parts of something to be understandable. They aim at organizing content so that users would easily adjust to the functionality of the product and find what they need intuitively.

  • Web Designer. A Web Designer is focused on creating eye-catching designs for a website or app, but might not be thinking about what a user needs or the quality of the user experience as they navigate the website or app.

Who Do UI Designers Work With?

Given the cross-disciplinary nature of the user interface design field, UI Designers can expect to work with many other departments and stakeholders within a company is inevitable.

UI Designers first and foremost work very closely with UX Designers as part of a larger product team, as well as other visual design professionals, development teams, software teams, sales and marketing teams, and quality assurance teams.

Reasons to Become a UI Designer

The reasons to become a UI Designer range from the fact that it’s a fertile field with plenty of job opportunities to the fact that UI Designers tend to be very satisfied with their salaries, work-life balance, and day-to-day work life.

That job satisfaction stems from the fact that UI design (as well as roles in user experience design) is a collaborative, creative line of work. User interface design sits at the intersection of psychology, design, business, and technology. As a UI designer, you’ll work with a multidisciplinary team of designers, developers, and marketers, but you’ll also get plenty of time to work independently on your design. From a collaboration standpoint, it’s a best-of-both-worlds role.

And it’s a good career from a job security perspective. User Interface Designers are in high demand, and they’re well-compensated. The average UI Designer makes $85,000, according to Glassdoor. A Senior UI Designer can expect to make north of $100,000.

As a UI Designer, you could have the opportunity to work in any number of industries, companies, or work situations, including startups, agencies, and large corporations. If you’re the type of person who would enjoy being your own boss, you could also build quite the career for yourself as a freelance User Interface Designer. You can also often work remotely and choose where you want to be.

UI design is also a great space for people who want a future-proof career and to actually play a big role in innovations that are on the horizon. To put it simply, UI Designers are playing a major role in futuristic products and technologies like self-driving cars and the Internet of Things.

UI Designers also enjoy a lot of variety in their work. Since they work on the user interface design of a huge array of product types for all different types of industry and company, they get to constantly experience new things at work. It’s certainly a great role for people who love learning.

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