Understanding Design: IA vs UX vs UI vs IxD

As a digital marketer or technologist, you rely on your design team to ensure your product is organized, is easy to use, and looks good. With such a critical part of the product development lifecycle, it's important that you know their strengths, weaknesses, and knowledge gaps. Understanding the different disciplines of design allows you to put definitions around capabilities so you can stay on the path of producing great work. 

Once upon a time, “designer” was a universal term to describe anyone who didn’t write code but did “anything else” when creating a website or an application. The term often encompassed all the different jobs needed to get an idea from concept to completion, including user research, copywriting, sitemaps, wireframes, branding, font selection, and more.

As the web matured, these different roles became separate areas of focus, so much to the point that today, undergraduate and advanced degrees are now available in so many different variations of “design.”

“There isn’t a right or wrong list, but it’s more about having the understanding of the nuances each [design discipline] provides.

The ambiguity of design often leads product or project teams churning, manifesting itself in two ways. Design can easily become so prominent and overbearing that no other disciplines can touch the “design sacred cow” or, their role is ignored or pushed so far down that the end product is hardly usable.

When you understand the different disciplines of design, it:

  1. Sets your internal team up for success, as you know their capabilities. Asking team members to accomplish tasks that aren’t in their wheelhouse is a sure way to create frustration, sub-par work
  2. Helps you find the right partner. Once you know the what capabilities your internal teams have, and you’ve identified your tasks in a roadmap, you can easily see skill gaps. You can ask your potential partners for the right skills, making any “design” requests much less vague
  3. Helps you hire the right people. As you build and change your internal teams, understanding the differences in design roles means you can hire for your specific need

We’re going to look at four disciplines of design, which can be added to or taken away depending on who you’re talking to, what role designers fill at your company, and how big or small your team is. There isn’t a right or wrong list, but it’s more about having the understanding of the nuances each provides. Many designers are one or combinations of these and many others. Knowing what they do, why they are important, and how they contribute to the product development lifecycle will allow you to set your internal team up for success, find the right creative or development partner, or hire the right people.

Let’s take a look.

Information Architect (IA)

What an IA Designer does
One of the deliverables an Information Architect creates is a product sitemap.

Information architecture is how content is organized and the way a product is structured. An information architect, or IA, became popular in the early to mid-2000’s within consultancies and companies but lost its luster as roles like “user experience” and “user interface” came into popularity. The good news is that it has once again been making its appearance in product teams, as it’s a critical skill.

What kind of work does an Information Architect produce? 

Anything that helps a user get from point A to point B is an IA’s responsibility. User flows, journey mapping, taxonomies, or sitemaps usually fall within their skillset. As companies go through a digital transformation, utilizing data is putting the role of an IA in a more important place. No longer does an IA just look at a user as part of a product, but many times it’s connecting a product to the rest of an organization through a taxonomy and user flows. They are the person that can map data from product to product.

A good IA will be able to take user problem, take the technical solution architecture of a product, and create a structure that helps solves the problem.

Why is an IA important?

It can be easy to spot a product team that is missing a good IA. The product, whether an app, website, or internal tool, may look good, it may have great developers behind it, but the organization starts to fall apart when you look under the covers.

An example I experienced recently was a customer tool meant to show real-time flow readings. It allowed customers to log in and see what was happening with their assets. The web application was beautifully designed, it pulled in the right data, but everything was organized by internal regions. If a customer wanted to see readings, they first had to select what region to view.  This caused many problems:

  • The user didn’t know what region was what, as the concept of a region was a 100% internal view of the company
  • Users couldn’t start with “all their readings” and filter to find what they needed, as they had to pre-select a region to see data
  • Users have to learn what readings are within what region
  • Assigning user permissions can sometimes cross regions, so different users must be given access to multiple regions, which is not ideal

By taking time for user-first information architecture at the beginning, it could be identified that the use of regions is an internal organization of information, not a client way of organizing information. The IA works with solution architects from the beginning to ensure the back-end supports the needs of the user-first organization.

User Experience Designer (UX)

What an UX Designer does
A wireframe is one of many deliverables a UX Designer will use to create a customer’s or patient’s experience in using a product.

User experience design is creating the way a product feels to a user. It’s figuring out the interaction between a user, who is a real-life person, and a product.

What kind of work does a UX Designer do?

If you think about a finished website, app, or other product you use often, the end result often looks simple. For me, seeing my Lyft drivers location on a map is convenient, especially when it’s 25 degrees outside. I can take this good user experience for granted. But, in order for Lyft to get to that point, a UX Designer must go through an often long and evolved process.

[A UX Designer wants] to create a “good” user experience, but there is never a single definition of a “good.” The ultimate solution must meet a particular user’s needs in the specific context where he or she uses the product.

Their work typically starts with user research, looking deep into analytics to find traffic sources, traffic flows, hot spots where users are spending visual time, pages where users leave or abandon the product, and the conversion funnel.  This analysis helps them find what is working and not working.

They can perform a content audit, to find out what assets exist in the product (written words, images, videos, etc.) or perform a usability test, which can really enable the UX Designer to start identifying the solution(s). Competitor assessments, customer/patient personas, experience maps, and wireframes are all additional deliverables a UX Designer can create as part of their process. Through this, they must seek to understand the content strategy, information architecture, and any visual design limitations as they move through their process, as their solution is such a critical component of all the different disciplines of design.

This work then gets to start over as new features are added, new data is available, A/B tests are run, or a conversion rate optimization (CRO) strategy is implemented.

Why is UX Design important?

Good data, good content, the perfect platform, the best design … none of these elements can be fully utilized without a user experience professional. They want to create a “good” user experience, but there is never a single definition of a “good.” The ultimate solution must meet a particular user’s needs in the specific context where he or she uses the product.

Interaction Designer (IxD)

What is an interaction designer
An Interaction Designer will work with prototypes to identify the best interactions. Prototypes allow for rapid and inexpensive changes.

Interaction design is how a product behaves. When a user speaks to a product, touches it, or looks at it, they are interacting with it. Transitions from one screen to another, animations, and how elements move in relation to another are all a part of what an IxD focuses on.

What kind of work does an Interaction Designer do?

User flow diagrams help to understand the decisions users must take as they go through the product. A visual representation of logging in, creating an account, adding an item to a cart, selecting an action, finding a medical term, and countless other actions help identify potential successes and failures.

Interaction Designers also create prototypes, which can be “low fidelity” (digital or done with paper) or “high fidelity.” They bring to life the work the Information Architect and User Experience Designer has done, allowing hypotheses to be tested before the feature move to the visual design and development teams.

Why is Interaction Design important?

With all the work that must be done prior to IxD, a product that skips the interaction design process will leave critical decisions to whoever happens to be writing the final code. Having a professional create engaging user interfaces with intentional, logical, and thought out behaviors gives your end customer or patient elements that support the taxnomy, experience, and design of your product.

User Interface Designer (UI)

What is an UI Designer
The visual elements of your product are what a User Interface Designer focuses on. This is all you see hear and more. 

User Interface Design is the way a product looks. This can be buttons, icons, colors, link and other call-to-action (CTA) styling, images, headings, typography (the font, size, spacing choices for all text), and how it all comes together.

What kind of work does a UI Designer do?

A UI Designer typically takes wireframes and prototypes and uses them to create the necessary design elements, as mentioned above. It can be a tough job, as stakeholders can understand the logic that comes with information architecture, user experience, and interaction design, but visual design is often personal. What looks good to them may not look good to you.

(Tip: Check out Invision’s article, How to give designers better feedback. It offers some practical ways you can build trust and offer actionable feedback.)

They also create digital brand guidelines, where they take your brand’s look and feel and “translate” it for digital use. This can mean adding web-friendly fonts to your existing catalog, adding additional colors that are needed to create a better digital experience, and helping you get away from corporate stock photos that don’t translate well into the digital space.

Why is User Interface Design important?

Your product can be usable without UI Design, but taking a well-structured product and making it look cohesive to your brand, using elements that help customers and users find what they are looking for, is where UI Designers shine. It’s more than just making something look “good,” but it’s about using the visual design of a product and making it sell more things, make information more findable, and ultimately make your customer or patient feel good about what they are doing and what they are buying.

Chances are you’ve read these basic definitions and see overlap within your design team. You also are thinking of all the other design terms you hear, like UX Researcher, Digital Strategist, Visual Designer, UI/UX Designer, Product Designer, and countless others.

This is what makes “design” both hard to define and a fascinating field to work with.

Designers often have capabilities that overlap, but taking the time to understand what they do and why their job is important to your product is critical for keeping everyone working together to accomplish the same vision.

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