What Is UI Design? UI Design Best Practices for Ecommerce

ui design on left, right are silhouettes of different interfaces on web pages

Imagine purchasing a product that does something fantastic, like automatically scrub the shower or produce perfect sourdough bread in 45 seconds. The problem is, it’s so complex and poorly designed you can't figure out how to make it work. A product is only as useful as it is usable.

Think of your ecommerce store the same way: No matter how solid your offerings are, your success also hinges on how easy your website is to shop and navigate. It needs an intuitive, easy-to-use user interface (UI) to work. Here’s what UI design entails and how to optimize it for your business. 

What is UI design?

UI design stands for user interface design. It describes the process of shaping the visual components—the layout, design, and interactivity—that let people use computers and other devices. UI design aims to create a positive user experience by making interfaces simple, visually appealing, and effective.

For online businesses and ecommerce merchants, user interface design centers around human-computer interaction (HCI) because customers access online stores with computers or mobile devices. Ecommerce UI designers consider how users interact with elements such as product pages, shopping carts, and checkout processes. They then apply UI design skills to create an intuitive, responsive design that helps target users find and buy the products they want.

The UI design process goes beyond web design and ecommerce and can apply to any medium with interactive elements, physical or digital. It might entail crafting the UI elements of a car’s dashboard, a vending machine, or a keyboard synthesizer.

UI design extends across a range of interactive interfaces. Each type of interface design has its quirks and challenges, but each involves producing a pleasant, intuitive user journey. Here are the five main categories of user interfaces that require UI design.

1. Graphical UI (GUI)

Graphical user interface (GUI) design focuses on the graphic design elements on digital screens, such as icons, windows, buttons, and menus. The goal is to create interfaces that display the information people need to manage the device and access its features and functions. A graphic UI designer might create odometer displays for cars, computer software interfaces, or airport flight arrival boards.

2. Command-line UI (CLI)

A command-line interface helps control what happens under the hood of a computer. This text-based UI allows users to interact with computer systems and devices by typing commands into a text-based command prompt to run applications or perform tasks. Developers and system administrators often use CLIs to manage files, install software, and configure system settings.

CLI was widely used in the early days of computing, when typed input controls were standard in operating systems like DOS. Today’s computers mostly use clicks and gestures, shifting the design focus to visual elements in GUI. Still, CLI remains vital for software developers who write code using text commands.

3. Touchscreen UI (TUI)

The touch screen user interface design process focuses on letting people use their fingers to navigate products that have touchscreen displays. TUI designers create interfaces that address two core principles. First, touchscreens must be accurate, so designs start with precision and error prevention. Touchscreens must also work logically. Users shouldn’t have to overthink their interactions; the machine should respond to simple gestures like tapping, swiping, and pinching.

TUI designers might try to make more accessible designs for certain groups, including children, those with limited vision, or people with diminished fine motor skills.

4. Voice-controlled UI (VUI)

Voice-controlled user interface (VUI) lets people operate devices using verbal commands to activate software that converts spoken commands into actions. 

Thanks to virtual assistants like Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Google Assistant, many people have become familiar with voice-controlled interfaces, expanding the target audience for this technology. VUI professionals focus on creating designs that make users feel more like they’re talking to a friend than a computer.

5. Gesture-based UI

Gesture-based UI focuses on three dimension interactions with a product or software, particularly virtual reality devices and video games with motion-sensitive controllers. A gesture-based UI design pattern uses sensors or cameras to detect hand motions, body movements, or facial expressions and translate these into actions by the device. 

This form of UI still incorporates visual design because the gestures often control what appears on individual screens of virtual reality headsets, gaming systems, and smartwatches.

UI vs. UX: What’s the difference?

UI stands for user interface, while UX stands for user experience. Together, these design aspects shape the visual and interactive elements of products. They focus on slightly different user experiences and design process elements.

What are the similarities?

Both interface design and user experience design optimize products to make them easy to operate and enjoy. As such, UI and UX designers usually start by conducting user research, identifying problems, and mapping the target audience’s typical workflows. Both involve testing and iterating on the design until it reaches the design handoff, where it’s passed on to engineers and product managers.

UI and UX design are both professional disciplines that sometimes require formal training.

What are the differences?

UI and UX are often used together, but they are distinct disciplines that focus on different design components:

  • UX focuses on the overall experience. True to its name, user experience design takes a broad view of a user’s experience with a product, i.e., the overall feel and usability. A UX designer is concerned with how easy it is for the user to accomplish their goals when using the product and considers all aspects of the user’s experience, emotions, and attitudes. The point is to create a positive and seamless experience.
  • UI focuses on aesthetics. User interface design is narrower in its approach, focusing more specifically on the visual and interactive elements of products. UI design aims to create an interface that is easy to use and visually appealing.

For instance, whereas a UX designer may decide a screen should show error message boxes when an app hits a dead end, a UI designer is more concerned with the message boxes’ placement, shape, and size. Ultimately, both strive to unlock the full functionality of a product for its users.

UI design best practices

Whether starting a UI design career or just dipping your toes in the UI waters as you build your online store, you can benefit from key skills and best practices to make your designs appealing to experienced and new users. Here are three core principles that can help steer your UI design practice:

  • Focus on information architecture. Information architecture describes how information is presented, found, and organized within a product. This information is often at the heart of a product’s functionality and is typically prioritized over aesthetics. The goal is to help users find what they need quickly and efficiently. Keep in mind that what might make sense to you may not make sense to others. As you build out how a customer or user may flow from page to page on your site, gather feedback from colleagues, family, or friends to ensure you’ve got the best informational hierarchy possible (and don’t be afraid to change things up as you grow).
  • Create interactive prototypes. One of the best ways to predict a user experience is to create interactive prototypes of the products you’re designing. You can also recruit focus groups from the public to test your prototypes and provide feedback. Be sure to source from diverse users to cover everyone who falls into your target audience.
  • Study your competitors. What are these rival products doing right (that you could ethically use in your designs)? Where do they need to improve? You can gain a lot of insight by evaluating your competitors’ offerings. Embrace humility and the fact that you might be up against stiff competition. A worthy opponent can be a motivating factor.
  • Communicate with other designers throughout the process. As a UI designer, you may be paired with UX designers who focus on overall user experience, engineers who turn your designs into software code, and product managers who bring your work to the public. Maintain consistent communication and a strong collaborative relationship with these other professionals, so everyone’s output coalesces into a cohesive whole.

You can also formally study UI design. Many colleges and universities offer design majors. Or, you can supplement your design career with online courses offered by institutions like the Interaction Design Foundation, which covers topics ranging from color theory to visual hierarchy to web design for usability.

How to bring UI principles into your work as an ecommerce entrepreneur

As an ecommerce entrepreneur, it’s essential to use common UI elements to make your online store stand out. Elements such as font selection, text size, color scheme, and mobile-optimized graphics can give your storefront a sheen of professionalism. Research shows a correlation between UI and purchasing behavior, encompassing everything from color choices to smartphone optimization.

One easy way to consciously incorporate UI design into your ecommerce storefront is to partner with an ecommerce vendor. Shopify offers UI resources, including tips for the best ecommerce website designs. If you’re more tech-savvy, dig into Shopify’s Polaris system, which includes UI options, apps, code libraries, and guidance.

UI design FAQ

What is the difference between UI and UX?

UI design is user interface design. It focuses on the visual and aesthetic elements of the interfaces that allow people to interact with computers and other devices. UX design is user experience design. It focuses on the overall functionality of a product concerning the user experience. Both apply to interactive products, but today mainly apply to digital devices and software.

Does UI design require coding?

No. You don’t need to be a coder to engage in UI design. However, UI is a visual discipline that interacts with coding and programming. If you’re not a coder, you’ll have to partner with one to make your designs work.

How do I become a UI designer?

You don’t need a degree to become a UI designer, though many colleges and universities offer such degrees, often under the umbrella of graphic design. Ultimately, however, you need experience. Perhaps the best way to gain experience is by working as an apprentice or offering your services at discounted rates as you learn on the job. You can also take online courses (such as the one offered by the Interaction Design Foundation) to further your understanding.

Is UI the same as graphic design?

UI design and graphic design are closely related but are not synonymous. UI design is mainly related to functionality. Although UI designers apply core graphic design principles in their work, graphic design leans more toward aesthetics. In other words, a UI designer’s graphic choices serve to make a product work as intuitively and efficiently as possible.