I’ve lost count of the number of meetings that I’ve had with copywriters, marketers, and designers where the terms customer experience (CX), user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) have been used interchangeably.

In those meetings, I’ve always gotten the gist of what they were trying to explain, so I’ve overlooked the terminology. But now that my job consists of having to dive into the evolving, new industry of customer experience to emerge with clear concise answers for CX professionals, I’ve decided to it’s time I tackle CX versus UX versus UI.

Let’s get started.

What is customer experience (CX)?  

The short answer: Customer experience (CX) is a term used to define all interactions that a customer has with your brand.

Customer experience is how your customers perceive their interactions with your company. And delivering great customer experience means meeting or exceeding the expectations of your customer during all interactions with your company.

I want to emphasize that the term customer experience encompasses all interactions, across all touchpoints of a customer’s journey and relationship with your brand. This means any type of engagement a customer has with your company, whether it be on your website, via social, on the phone, in person, etc.

Customer experience is important because it determines whether your organization succeeds or fails. In fact, poor customer experience is costing U.S. companies $136.8 billion per year due to avoidable churn.

If you think about it, the concept of CX is pretty simple. As the customer, when our needs are met we barely notice it, because we expect it. But when we’re disappointed by a company, we notice it because it interrupts our day. And often, we are so upset that we tell our friends, family, and colleagues; we write poor reviews online and, most likely, will stop engaging with that brand.

To deliver great CX, a company needs to establish a solid customer experience program that lays out the plan to produce great customer experiences across the entire customer journey. To learn how to do this, check out our other CX article.

What is user experience (UX)? 

The short answer: User experience (UX) focuses on optimizing a product or service for effective and enjoyable use.

Unlike customer experience, which focuses on the customer’s entire experience (duh), user experience centers solely on the satisfaction with the product or service.

To understand why there’s confusion between the term CX and UX we have to hop on our time machine and travel back to the late 1990s when the term was first used.

Legend has it that Don Norman, a cognitive scientist and co-founder of the Nielsen Norman Group Design Consultancy, invented the term UX, declaring that it encompasses all aspects of the end user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products.

Norman’s definition implies that UX includes all interactions, which sounds a lot like CX, right?

Well, over time the term user experience has morphed into its own, new experience category. It’s often now referred to as user experience design (not to be confused with the term user interface or user interface design which I will address below). It’s unclear why or how it’s changed among industries; some say it’s because of the digital boom, but I disagree.

I disagree with that theory because UX isn’t tied solely to the digital realm—user experience refers to both physical and digital products and services.

Here is how the industry defines UX:

User experience focuses on enhancing the user’s satisfaction with a product or service by improving the accessibility, usability and overall pleasure of using that product or service. 

In even simpler terms, its goal is to make it as easy as possible for users to accomplish what they’re trying to do. Often, it’s all about helping them solve a particular problem.

What is user interface (UI)? 

The short answer: User interface (UI) refers to the optimization of a product’s interface look and function.

User interface and user experience go hand in hand.

Rahul Varshney, co-creator of Foster.fm explains it perfectly:

A UI without UX is like a painter slapping paint onto canvas without thought; while UX without UI is like the frame of a sculpture with no paper mache on it. A great product experience starts with UX followed by UI. Both are essential for the product’s success.

Unlike UX, which can relate to both physical and digital products, user experience lives strictly in digital.

User interface focuses on the look and feel of a product—its presentation and interactivity.

Another way to look at it is: UI is the process of visually guiding a user through a product’s interface, via interactive elements (like icons, scrolling, etc.) across the entire platform.

With the user interface, you’re dealing with how people see things.

If you’re like me and get these terms mixed up, here is a simple way to look at it: If you create something that looks amazing but is difficult to use, that’s an example of great UI and poor UX. However, if what you created looks horrible, but is very usable, then you’ve got poor UI and great UX.

To wrap up: CX vs. UX vs. UI

User experience and user interface fall under the overall customer experience of a brand. However, all three terms are equally important. If people can’t understand your website, it’s very unlikely that they’ll become a customer. On the other hand, you can have a wonderful website, but horrible customer service, and easily lose loyal customers. Great customer experience can only happen when you succeed at all three.

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