The differences between graphic design and user interface design

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One of our main goals with this blog is to help our readers choose the best software possible. There are many things to consider when evaluating software such as price, platform, reliability, speed, etc. but I think the most important thing is design. Design is what makes the difference between software you have to use and software you want to use. Unfortunately the word "design" means different things to different people.

I'm going to try to clear up some possible confusion about software design. While there are all different kinds of design, I like to keep things simple by breaking it into two categories: graphic design and user interface (or user experience) design.

Graphic Design is the what most people think of when they think of design because it's the easiest to observe. Graphic designers pick colors, choose images,  design logos, and do other very visual tasks. This type of design is similar to what most people would consider "art".

If graphic design is art, then User Interface Design is science. UI designers figure out how software and users interact with each other. When you submit a form, what happens? How are users notified of errors? Does the form go to a new page, or submit while staying on the current page?

Great graphic design means the software looks pretty. Great UI design means the software is easy to use. Great graphic design is Apple. Great UI design is Google (many of their products anyway - just don't mention Android or Google Docs).

Obviously it's best for software to excel in both categories, but if you have to pick one thing to focus on, I personally believe that UI design is much more important in the long run. As I mentioned above, UI design can also be referred to as "User Experience Design" (there are small differences, but they're basically the same). I think most people would agree that it's better to have a great experience than it is to look at pretty pictures and colors.

So when you're trying software in the future, try to pay attention to the UI decisions that went into it. Don't be distracted by shiny icons and brushed steel. Instead, check to see if the navigation makes sense. Make sure the error messages are helpful. Consider if the software makes you click way more times than it should. Basically, try to figure out if the designers were actually interested in your experience, or if they just wanted it to look cool.

I'll finish this post off with a few examples. Here are some websites that highlight good and bad graphic and UI design:

Great Graphic Design - Envato
This is a pretty basic site so the UI isn't too important, but boy is it pretty. Envato has a lot of other sites you can check out from their home page and they're all excellent examples of great graphic design.

Horrible Graphic Design - Craigslist
Craigslist is famous for how crappy and old their site looks. People love the gimmick, but there's no denying that the site is u.g.l.y. (the UI isn't any good either, but let's not get into that right now)

Great User Interface Design - Gmail (specifically the undo feature)
Gmail is not the only software that does this by any means, but they were one of the first (that I noticed anyway). When you perform an action, rather than popping up an annoying window asking "are you sure?" they just go ahead with the action and then let you undo it later if you want to. This saves a lot of clicks since 99% of the time you actually did mean to perform the action.

Horrible User Interface Design - Salesforce
Salesforce is riddled with horrible design of all varieties, but I want to point out the worst UI design I've ever seen in my life. When you log in for the first time from a new computer, Salesforce sends you an email to activate your computer (you can't access the site until you do this). When you click the activation link, you see the screenshot below. It tells you to go to the login page. A good UI designer would put the login form directly on that page. A bad UI designer would link to the login page. A mind-blowingly incompetent excuse for a UI designer (which apparently is the type that Salesforce likes to hire) would tell you to go to the login form without putting a link to it anywhere on the page.

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