First, let’s get the basics out of the way. UX stands for “user experience”, while UI stands for “user interface”.

These two concepts might seem indistinguishable. They also might seem like fancy words that describe not a whole lot. The truth, however, is that they are independent practices serving very different — and important — end user needs.

I like to think of UX as the map of the user’s journey and UI as the actual road the user walks on. Let me explain…

UX is a high-level understanding of who the user is and what they need. We perform exercises such as building user personas to get a clearer understanding of the user’s demographics, goals, physical environment, and pain points. Based on these findings, we construct the overall architecture of the digital solution we’re building. This includes asking questions such as: What is the problem the application is helping to solve? How is the user finding the application? Is the user more prone to a mobile device or a desktop computer? Does the user want to use the application, or do they need to use the application?

Let’s say we establish that the users are employees at a large corporate enterprise being tasked with using our application by their boss. Their interaction with our app is something they have to do (most likely while sitting at their desk in their gray cubicles), or they run the risk of not meeting compliance. This information tells us that the users’ experience needs to be as enjoyable and painless as possible. Some examples of how this can be accomplished:

  • The onboarding portion should be welcoming, but not overly cute or saccharine. Language or graphics that are twee wouldn’t be age-appropriate and might be off-putting for someone who isn’t willingly there in the first place
  • Highlighting the users’ progress through the application will maintain momentum and give them an on-going sense of “I’m almost done”
  • Providing subtle encouragements and directional next steps supports the users through the application, hopefully minimizing frustration with work they’re not choosing to do themselves

Another key concept we all need to remember is that good UX is completely invisible to the end user. If we’ve planned the user experience well, there is no moment of confusion…which leads me to UI.

UI refers to the actual building blocks of the application. Meaning, how does each view of the application look and function? Once we’ve figured out where the user needs to go and how they should get there (the UX “map”), we then need to figure out the rules of the UI road. How big does the road need to be? What colors make sense on the road? How many steps on the road before the user has completed task X? You get the idea.

Going back to our example end users who are being tasked to use the application by their boss, here are some UI elements we can use to help reinforce the overall experience already sketched out for them:

  • Personalization: If we implement a user profile, we can leverage first names and avatars throughout the application — allowing for specific messaging and a subtle sense of ownership
  • Typography: you’d be surprised the impact the right typeface and font have on the overall application. If your user needs to move through the application quickly, consider using a clean, large font that allows for a easy to see calls-to-action and navigation
  • Color: Knowing that the users are not voluntarily using the application, what color scheme makes sense to show failure, success and so on? A bright red signifying a wrong answer is probably too off-putting for the user. A more pastel palette might better serve the user — and the application
  • Hierarchy: How you lay the information out on the page should always honor the most important tasks and information for the user. Remember, keeping the user’s experience as frictionless as possible is key to an application’s success
  • Simplicity: Don’t make the user struggle to figure out where things live or what’s next. Obvious touches like clearly labeled elements or universal icons may seem like boring design decisions, but it’s wise to err on the side of “understandable” — as opposed to the “cool”.

When we are in the process of sketching or designing out an application — essentially planning out the UI of the application — it’s always best to go back to the UX you’ve established. Considering what the user will appreciate when determining the placement or title of a button may seem silly to some, but it’s these subtle touches that can help your application rise above the competition.

There is so much more to both of these concepts, but I hope I’ve at least helped you understand the basic differences between UX and UI.

Having worked in the agency world close to a decade now, I have seen both successes and failures when it comes to client relationships. If you’ve had experience in this space yourself, you too have probably heard your share of horror stories, whether it be agency staff talking about clients or clients talking about agencies. Sadly, I’ve seen it leave more than a few folks disheartened on both sides.

But there’s good news. I’ve realized over the years that there are some characteristics that all good agencies share, and they are as follows:

Focus on Long-Term Project Success

Sounds obvious, right? But this may come with some surprising characteristics. It means that the agency will be constantly looking for and communicating the weak spots in your project. Whether it be your marketing plan, your app/website or your long-term goals, this agency is focused on making sure the success of it all is priority #1. That means they will put your long-term success above selling you something, because they know that the best relationships form around this successful product.

Honest about Their Strengths/Weaknesses

Similar to a job candidate, you want someone who is honest about their strengths and weaknesses because it means they know themselves. They should be able to speak confidently about what is in their wheelhouse and be clear about alternatives if what your project needs is outside of that. They would rather be a part of a larger collaboration working on a project’s success than try to force a less than superior solution through their own process.

Good Listeners

Most of us love talking about ourselves. And a good agency should be able to talk eloquently about why they are relevant for your project. But most importantly, they should constantly be listening. While we have deep experience in our industry, often we have very little direct experience in yours. That business knowledge is priceless to the project’s success, so it’s absolutely necessary to have it be heard and understood throughout the entire process.

Can Pivot Quickly

I was in my son’s first grade classroom the other day, and I saw a very simple breakdown of the engineering design process on the wall.

Notice how simply it distills down the process involved in creating a new product? I particularly loved seeing the Improve section, because the only guarantee in the fast-paced technology space is that things change quickly. Regardless of how meticulous the planning phase is, important changes can occur even during the project’s development phase. The agency should prepare for this and know how to pivot whenever needed – even in later phases of the process – in order to keep the project’s success in mind.

Flexible Toolset

Like many agencies, we at Centresource have our preferred tools. But the conversation should never start with those. Using the wrong tool for the job is just as bad in development as it is when you’re building a house. The tool should clearly solve the problem, and the fit should feel natural for the product and for your organization internally.

Referable Talent

Our industry is very competitive and developers are constantly looking for the next challenge, so it’s not really possibly to have all the talent in a single area at one agency. With that said though, you should be able to vet the senior talent at the agency. Your product deserves people with deep experience in the technology behind it, and a good agency expects to brag about their senior development staff.

Keep these characteristics above in mind as you’re vetting an agency, and I believe you will be poised to make a good decision.

This morning we announced some exciting organizational changes to Centresource. Below, Senior Consultant Ann Howard shares her thoughts on the opportunity in front of us.

This is a milestone celebration for Centresource.

This company is more than a decade strong, and in this rapidly-changing industry, that’s saying something. We’ve evolved over that time in order to better serve our clients – not just delivering what they want, but also expanding their view of what’s possible.

What has made Centresource great is what we understand about the nuanced relationship between technology and business goals.  It’s not enough to have the tools and the goals; it’s really about understanding how the sum of all the parts will ultimately serve the end user.

Practicing Product Management has taught us the necessity of a clear, visible purpose as the driving focus for the work we do. We’ve learned to work lean, smart, and in rapid iterations. We’ve learned to work within constraints. We know that our work isn’t precious, it’s not done in a vacuum, and it is best when we take off the kid gloves and make it visible.

We’re applying all the foundational knowledge we’ve gained through working in self-managing product teams and taking the next natural step – becoming a fully employee-owned and employee-managed firm.

We will continue to build and launch innovative products.

We will continue to give our all to our clients and our work.

We will continue to invest in our Nashville community to help make this a place where technology thrives.

We will continue to do these things because it’s in our DNA.

It’s to that foundation that I would like to propose a toast:

Here’s to our founders and to all the leaders who have come through this house and offered their best. You haven’t gone anywhere, you’ve just left the building. It’s YOUR hard work that has created a great company to work in and for.

Here’s to our clients who are on the constant quest to find better ways to solve problems and who continue to choose us as their trusted ally.

Here’s to this. amazing. team. (this is the part where I tear up) Even with all the money and time in the world, it would be difficult to pull together a team with more smarts, wit, dedication and integrity. We are more than the sum of our parts…kind of like a great product.

Cheers to each of you. If this is what it looks like when a company grows up, then here’s to growing up.