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What’s the difference between web design and development? And what about UI vs UX? What do these divisions mean? Why are there so many acronyms?? Don’t tech people want everything to be user friendly!?

Web design example
Hybrid Herbs homepage design by BryanMaxim

If you’re new to getting a website designed, coming across the terminology of the tech industry can feel a lot like listening to a foreign language—except most foreign languages have rhyme and reason. But working with a web professional is something every business should do at some point; if you want a successful website, you may need a translator.

That’s what this article is for. If you’re getting your first website designed or just looking to understand the industry better, here we explain and dissect four of the most used and most troublesome terms in tech today: UI, UX, web design and web development. After reading this, you’ll not only know what each field does, but also which one you need your business to focus on most.

The ABCs of IT

Web design notebook next to an iPhone
Wireframe of new website design, via Pexels

Let’s start off with some basic definitions to ease your initial confusion and give your some context before we dive deeper:

  • Web design — A broad umbrella category for everything that relates to designing the visuals and usability of a website. Both UI and UX design, along with many other fields, are included under web design.
  • Web development — The technical part of making a website, focusing on code. Web development is further divided into “front-end” and “back-end,” explained below.
  • User Interface (UI) — A specialization of web design that deals with the controls people use to interact with a website or app, including button displays and gesture controls.
  • User Experience (UX) — Another specialization of web design, this one dealing with user behavior and feeling when using the site or app. UX design encapsulates many other areas, but views them from the perspective of the user.

As you can see already, none of these areas are exclusive and there’s tons of overlap. Web design and development are just two sides of the same coin, UI design influences UX design, web development supports them all… it’s less about which fields handle which tasks, and more about how each field considers the same task from a different point-of-view.

For example, let’s look at loading times, a common problem for every website. How does each field address loading times:

  • Web design: If a page takes too long to load, there’s either too much content or content that’s too complex. The image files can be compressed, assets can be adjusted & re-exported and  pages can be trimmed of excess content.
  • Web development: To make content load faster, we can try better file compression to reduce the file sizes of the content, CSS sprites to save bandwidth or a content delivery network to improve loading times in specific geographical regions.
  • UI: Controls must be as responsive as possible, so the interface must be simple enough that interactivity is instantaneous.
  • UX: The likelihood a user will “bounce” (leave your site after just a few moments) increases with every second of loading time, so we should prioritize reducing the load time on the home and landing pages first before addressing the problem site-wide.

In a perfect world, you would hire a specialist or team of specialists for each of these fields so you have an expert looking at your website from all angles. However, budgetary constraints often mean choosing one field over the other, or hiring freelancers on a project-by-project basis.

Occasionally you’ll find someone who claims to do it all:

  • Designers who can code sometimes label themselves as the all-in-one package, but in reality they’re more limited than two separate specialists (though sometimes this might be a smart hire if you have a simple site).
  • UI designers have many overlapping skills with web designers, so some people will use those titles interchangeably.
  • UX and UI are often lumped together, considering they’re both sub-specializations.
  • UX is often treated as a skill in other professions, even outside of design, such as a product management.

Such people can be useful in a pinch, but just remember that a jack of all trades is master of none—they may know the basics of multiple fields, but they’ll likely only be an expert in one, if any.

You also want to make distinctions between websites & apps and desktop & mobile. Each worker has their own individual specialities—some developers have more experience building mobile sites; some designers stick exclusively to apps and never do websites. Again, there’s plenty of overlap, but if you’re hiring for a specific project, make sure your candidates can handle the specifics.

So which one of these specialists can help you with your particular business goals? And what should you look for when hiring them? Let’s take a deeper look at each now.

Web design

“Web design” is a bit of an archaic term, dating back to the days when a single person handled all the design aspects of a website. By modern standards, the term “web designer” can be a bit vague; today, thanks to technology and our increased understanding of the craft, we have a rainbow of subdivisions.

Home page of Figgy & Plum
Figgy & Plum home page design by DSKY

The subcategories of web design include both UI and UX, but also other fun acronyms like IA (information architecture, dealing with site mapping and navigation) and CRO (conversion rate optimization, fine-tuning the site’s design to increase sales, signups or other specific actions). There are dozens of these subcategories, with new ones created every day as designers try to get better jobs in a competitive market.

Generally speaking, web design relates to the visuals and functionality of a web site. It’s a field intrinsically tied to graphic design at every level, and deals with the same design principles of visual communication.