If there’s one thing us makers of digital things love it’s nice bit of jargon. And it’s natural that in something evolving as quickly as the digital domain there are going to be a lot of new terms of art, often helpfully abbreviated into 2 or 3-letter acronyms. Helpful for us, maybe less so for you.
But there's no reason it has to be that way. So, as a starting point, here are our 30-second takes on three of the main offenders: UI, UX and IA.
UI, or User Interface
In the most general terms, UIs are the parts of technology that we directly interact with. The bits that we see, hear and touch. From the handle on a flint axe, to buttons, dials and switches, to high-resolution, touchable computer graphics. The UI is the (hopefully) comprehensible layer sitting on top of a piece of technology that lets us understand and control it.
In the area of digital design, UI has generally been synonymous with a related term, “GUI”, meaning a Graphical User Interface, or the graphics that appear on a computer screen. GUIs have evolved from green-on-black text command line interfaces, through windows-and-folder desktop metaphors to touch UIs that allow direct manipulation of content and where surrounding UI elements fade into the background or seem to disappear entirely.
But on top of this evolution, our notion of what a UI is has expanded rapidly in other directions in the last few years. Your phone is becoming something you talk to as much as tap, where the UI has no physical form, but must be smart enough to engage you in conversation.
The future of UI may be less Tom Cruise hand-waving at holograms and more a nice chat with an attentive pal.
UX, or User Experience
UX describes a set of design practices that focus on the needs, goals and, ultimately, the experience a person has when using a piece of digital technology.
UX has always been a part of digital design, even before it was given its name. For example, think of the continuous refinement of Amazon’s checkout process, which has been happening since its launch in 1994. That constant iteration, in response to user behaviour and feedback, is a cornerstone of a UX design process.
But it’s only in the last decade that awareness of UX approaches and practices has more-or-less taken over the digital design community. Symbolised by the ubiquity of the “UX” acronym, from the re-framing of long-established design principles in terms of digital experience, to the cottage industry in important-sounding job titles (why be a boring old Designer when you can be a UX Systems Architect?).
I’d argue it’s a little presumptuous to think you can actually design a person’s experience of something. People and their personal experiences are all very different and change from moment to moment. But maybe that recognition is the point and the value of UX. Stepping back from a literal reading of the term, it gets us designers and developers out of our own heads, away from the cleverness of design and technology, and points us where we need to stay focused: on the goals of the people who use the things we make.
IA, or Information Architecture
Like traditional architecture, IA is concerned with designing structures and environments, but (as the name would suggest) for information and data, rather than people.
To say there’s a lot of information on the web is a bit of an understatement. But we’re generally only interested in the tiny portion of it that is relevant to us and what we’re currently up to. How easy it is to find that information, from using search engines at the largest scales, to navigating to the right page on a website and the right place on that page at the smallest scale, is down to good (or bad) IA.
IA sorts, categorises, shuffles and structures information into a form that users can get to quickly and make use of easily. And it’s key to making websites and apps sustainable. A lack of IA planning and design will often lead to a website that can’t scale and is overwhelmed as content is continuously added to it.
Good IA tends to be invisible, something it has in common with a of lot of good design. But if you’re using a website and get where you need to be with little or no effort, or your intuition about searching for something turns out to be spot-on, it’s probably the result of carefully considered IA behind the scenes.
Hopefully you can see that what lies behind acronyms like these isn’t some kind of forbidden occult knowledge. When we digital designers and developers use this jargon, it’s certainly not to try and confuse anyone else. Our jobs become a lot easier when the people we work with have a clearer idea about what we do (and vice versa, of course). Any designer or developer worth their salt should feel the same way, and should be more than happy to explain things to anyone who takes the time to ask. So don’t be shy.