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

As seen on The Future of Commerce Blog:

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

In trying to consider each of these terms, it can help to visualise them as concentric circles, starting with UI in the centre 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 literally means. It’s user interface; the interface with which a user interacts with a brand within a particular part of 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, UX is the experience a user has with a brand during a journey across a single channel (this is one important distinction). 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 should be considered as the sum of all touchpoints a brand has with its customers, across any channel and at any time.

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 touchpoint 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 to 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, touchpoints, and user experiences form the customer experience.

UI is part of UX is part of CX

UI, UX 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.

Branwell Moffat

Director of CX Consulting

Branwell Moffat is the Director of CX Consulting at KPS Digital in the UK; an award-winning SAP partner and SAP CX SI in London, UK. He’s a highly technical, strategic and business-focused e-commerce consultant and business leader with over 20 years experience helping companies grow their digital businesses to levels of individual revenues in excess of $500 million per year.

During this time he has been the co-founder / manager of Envoy Digital, a successful digital and e-commerce agency and Gold SAP and Hybris Partner based in SW London, UK which was acquired by KPS in early 2018.

His career has been spent consulting on, architecting and sponsoring the development of a large number of enterprise e-commerce solutions for a range of global brands, online and high street retailers, Premier League football clubs, financial organisations as well as a number of other vertical industries.

This experience has given him a unique understanding of not only the commercial and strategic aspects of growing an omni-commerce business, but also the technical, tactical and practical aspects of doing so.  His experience encompasses everything within the sphere of omni-commerce from user experience through to supply chain and ERP.

Branwell is often asked to talk on the subject of customer experience and, as a thought-leader, looks to write articles that, not only get people thinking, but contain real and practical advice.