Understanding Digital Design Terms: IA, UI, and UX

Design Terms
Erin Schroeder
Jan 04, 20197 min read

If you’ve spent any time in the world of website design and development, you’ve probably been inundated with acronyms like UX, UI, IA, and beyond. You’ve likely read about them, and surely have seen job opportunities for them.

But what are they exactly? And what are their differences?

These acronyms are part of digital design, and they primarily focus around user experience (UX) – so there’s one! And while they may orbit around the end user — their journey, the buyer’s funnel, and the desire to send them to conversions — they all have slightly different meanings.

What is IA?

Information Architecture

IA stands for Information Architecture. Broadly, information architecture is the arrangement of things to be understandable. In web design and development, Usability.gov defines IA as “organizing, structuring, and labeling in an effective and sustainable way.”

While engineers and data scientists may use IA to define how they build software, IA in web design is often defined by labels such as navigation and page names. It accounts for the structure and sitemap of the website or app.

The Information Architecture Institute says that, “Information architecture is about helping people understand their surroundings and find what they’re looking for, in the real world as well as online.” From designing the aisles of grocery stores to websites, information that helps people find what they need can be considered IA.

IA also follows other important pieces of the web puzzle, including but not limited to:

  • Sitemaps
  • Taxonomies and categorization
  • Crosslinking strategies
  • Parent-child page relationships
  • Page structure and information hierarchy
  • Metadata structure

Those who perform IA also look for important relationships between content and assets, building connections or pathways that search engines and users can easily follow.

Who does IA?

A developer from Bayut explains, that information architecture is an important step in any major web project, and can be done by a host of experts including web designers, content strategists, and dedicated information architects.

But while a person or team may be most knowledgeable in IA, it’s a shared skill to understand the strategic decision to make helpful, informational labels that help your users navigate your digital presence.

IA also plays an important role in UI.

IA Resources

To learn more about IA, check out these helpful resources:

What is UI?

User Interface

UI stands for User Interface, and generally refers specifically to interface design, or web design. While IA focuses on the foundation of how information relates to one another, UI focuses on how that experience and connection looks and functions to the end user.

UI, by and large, is most closely associated with graphic design. Web designers rely on creativity and understanding of the IA and primary audience goals and missions to help build a design that meets their needs. From color palettes and image selection to animations, designers — or UI experts — try to bring the brand’s style and experience to life for users on the other side of the screen.

More simply, UserTesting defines UI as, “anything a user may interact with to use a digital product or service.” From websites to apps to smartphones, all of the interactions we have with digital experiences are due to the work of a UI expert.

According to the Interaction Design Institute, UI is most valuable to users when it accomplishes basic web rules such as:

  • Consistent use of buttons – Buttons throughout a website or app operate the same, no matter where it’s placed
  • Keep simplicity in mind – It’s OK if there’s whitespace. Sometimes the best UI gets out of the way and gives the most essential information in the simplest form. Respect the user’s attention and needs before your own aesthetics.
  • Use animation sparingly – It can be an easy distraction, especially if it’s not animation that’s driving conversion. Animation for animation sake can often get in the way.
  • Rely on reusable design patterns – Keep a style guide handy and use a consistent style across all pages on the website or app. Avoid “digital whiplash” and making users “relearn” the structure of the page by keeping each page consistent in its layout, appearance, and features.

Who does UI?

User interface is most often aligned with graphic designers, as mentioned previously. However, graphic designers often work closely with web developers (or coders), as well as content strategists to collaborate.

Like IAs, strategic teamwork among web experts help ensure the essential elements — from brand style to intended conversion points — are met within the design experience.

UI, and IA, are both essential to the overall UX, or user experience.

UI Resources

To learn more about UI, check out these helpful resources:

What is UX?

User Experience

UX stands for user experience, or user experience design. While UI focuses on design, and IA focuses on the organization of information, UX focuses on everything: The umbrella of the experience delivered to users.

User experience is vital because understanding how users should (or are currently) interacting with your website or app drives important changes to better their experience.

Peter Morville at Semantic Studios uses a honeycomb model to display the relationships of skills that go into UX including:

  • Useful
  • Usable
  • Desirable
  • Findable
  • Accessible
  • Credible
  • Valuable

In UX, experts with this title or in this field will focus on user data, personas, and user journey maps to understand the challenges, questions, and needs of the target audience or end user.

Godfathers of user experience Don Norman and Jakob Nielsen, co-founders of the illustrious Nielsen Norman Group, define user experience as something that, “encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products.”

Fortunately, UX is such a growing field, and there’s a wealth of knowledge and learning to help get anyone started in the right direction. There are also many “tentacles” and subtasks of UX that make it so important, including:

  • User testing – Learning how users interact with products, services, or brands like yours can help drive the direction to connect with the target users you’re seeking. User testing accomplishes this, from focus groups to remote testing through online platforms. This also comes in handy to test prototypes before development or building begins.
  • User research – Like user testing, user research is equally important. Some user research can be done in a testing environment, and others can be done through researching analytics and data. User research and analytics can help reveal how users find your site and the keywords they use to get there, which can be helpful in developing the experience or making improvements.
  • Wireframe development – Building wireframes is something UX pros are often tasked with doing. After understanding the needs of users, wireframes lay out the “skeleton” of the website or app, how pieces work together, and how the user should – ideally – funnel through the experience.
  • Accessibility and usability – Above all else, UX professionals have a duty to ensure the website or app holds up to usability (it works) and accessibility (it works for everyone). Understanding how users with specific needs would access the content or convert online, drives many important decisions that guide content and design experts. Likewise, the website’s ability to work on all devices or platforms ensures it’ll be easy-to-use for all.
  • Collaboration with other experts – Anyone with a specific UX title often collaborates with UI (design) and IA (content strategy), who’ll help outline the navigation in the wireframe, and the design for the concept. The person who’s tasked with UX works as a teammate, guiding what they learned from the user testing and research to drive decisions.

Who does UX?

User experience has grown into a role or title that individuals or teams hold, but in some places, it’s still part of the expectations of designers and content strategists. UX, or UX design, is considered a necessary skill in today’s web design world, and even if someone doesn’t hold UX in their title, it’s implied in other roles.

UX Resources

To learn more about UX, check out these helpful resources:

An Ever-Evolving Field

As always with the web, it’s good to keep your finger on the pulse of what’s changing. As devices become more advanced, and the way people use the web and apps changes with the times, so will the IA, UI, and UX roles.

To keep up with the industry, follow Slickplan’s blog for more tips, articles, and insights into this evolving field.

Erin Schroeder
Written by Erin Schroeder

Erin Schroeder is a senior content strategist and writer at Geonetric, where she helps healthcare brands organize user-first websites, content marketing, and brand messaging. As a former journalist, she never lost her love to write. You'll also see her articles on content strategy and user experience around the web, including UX Collective, UX Booth, and Prototypr.