The difference between UI, UX and CEX

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From a Jobs-to-be-Done perspective

We owe it to people who are not in these professions to make it clear what we mean when we say UI, UX and/or CEX. Too often these things get conflated together and begin to lose their meaning. So allow me lay my perspective out for you, as succinctly as possible.

I’m sure you’ve all see this before. The slash implies that they are the same thing, or interchangeable in some way. The reality is that they are very different. If we expand the acronyms into their full phrasing we get:

  • UI = User Interface
  • UX = User Experience

Even though I haven’t defined these terms yet, it should be abundantly clear that they are not the same thing.

Have you have seen this? I have. They are not the same thing, yet it is implied that they are. Let me expand these for you:

  • UX = User Experience (implies use)
  • CEX = Customer Experience (implies much more)

Are all users customers? Well, technically yes…maybe. When I bought my son a Handy Manny toolkit when he was 2 years old, was he the user, or the customer? It’s not a trick question. The product is designed for the end user (a customer type), but in this case there are other stakeholders involved. The parent is the purchase decision maker (which is also a customer type).

The important thing to pull from this is that my son was the user, not the actual customer (me). So, his experience and mine had some kind of separation. What was that? The toy got a job done for him, and it also got a job done for me (purely functional in both cases).

User Interface

A user interface can include one or more objects/elements that a user interfaces with. A light switch is a single object/element with a user interface . A room is filled with user interfaces, light switches, door knobs, curtain rods, window latches, entertainment systems, etc. The user interface is focused on the affordances of the object, its visibility, and its accessibility.

An interface element could be a button on a web page, a seat in a train, or a kiosk at an airport (which itself has interface elements). At best, these are micro user experiences.

User Experience

A user experience is focused on the end-to-end integration of interface objects/elements across the entire platform or solution, e.g., a software application, a train, an airport terminal, etc. As a recovering software developer, I often found myself both designing user interface elements, and also designing the end-to-end experience of end users progressively interacting with them. However, at no time did I confuse the fact that these were two separate disciplines / capabilities.

In larger teams, these disciplines would have been separated.

I realize that many of you may not agree with what I proclaimed above. It just makes no sense (to me) to conflate the two. But , conflating UX and CEX is even worse in my opinion. It’s the reason we’re forced to use vague terms on the front end of design — such as Empathize — as a proxy for something very important; and that should be separated.

You’re really going to hate this 🙂

Customer Experience

If it wasn’t clear, I’ve been talking about the solution-space up until now. Essentially, how can we offer solutions that make the consumption of a solution easy, frictionless, delightful, and cost effective? I’m sure there are more words I could use. Now, I’m going to move the discussion into the problem-space (no not design or coding problems, market problems).

The problem space is the first thing that needs to be addressed before design solutions, user interfaces and user experiences. We first have to identify, and address, the problem that is not being solved adequately in the market. If we can’t find a way to do that, we will spend all of our time endlessly tweaking the UI/UX with the hope that it will be a little bit better than a competing solution experience. This could be softer seats on a train, the perfect font size on a website, or trying to make a customer imagine smiles on a customer support call.

The problem we are addressing is tied to the functional “why” customers hire products, or cobble numerous products together, and finding a way to solve for varying ways they struggle. More often than not, there will be multiple products involved when you investigate deeply. And since customers want to get more of their jobs done on a single platform, you first need to understand the customer’s job.

Do commuters want to ride a train, or are they commuting to work; which includes more steps/solutions than just a train ride?

If you’re focused on your current solution, you certainly do not see the entire job your customer is trying to get done. Inevitably, someone else will.

So, the customer experience is comprised of…

  • Identifying the right job (of the end user)
  • Identifying unmet needs
  • Resolving the unmet needs
  • A tightly integrated set of experiences across solution consumption.

The first bullet is laser-focused on the end user of the solution. They are the party you are helping to get a core job done. The remaining bullets could tie back to the end user, or other customer types who either purchase the solution or provide solution lifecycle services, e.g., installation services, customization services, etc. This is relevant for both consumer solutions and business solutions.

I propose that when we talk about customer experience, we are in fact talking about it in terms of helping end user customers getting a core job done and helping solution lifecycle support teams (could be the end user, or someone else) getting their jobs done as well; ideally in a highly integrated fashion.

In a perfect world for the end user, the product or service they choose would integrate the consumption jobs so well, that they would essentially be automated. Yet, the job is still getting done.

If you have a home security system that does all of the steps you used to do (lock the doors, activate the security system, alert the police, detect smoke, randomize your lighting, etc), you are still getting the job done (Protect my home); but the experience is much better because it’s been largely automated, it’s become cheaper, and it’s much more reliable.

Ok, that’s settled. Right?

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