Do I need a UI developer or web developer – what’s the difference?

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A web developer will build you a website whereas a UI developer will make it nicer to use.

Essentially, a web developer will build an entire web solution while a UI (user interface) developer will improve how users interact with it.

A main difference is that the web developer focuses on the back-end and the UI only worries about the front-end. That's an over-simplification, but a helpful place to start. We'll look more deeply into the roles and goals of each in the rest of the article.

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By the end of this guide, you'll understand who you'd need to hire for different scenarios: a web developer or UI designer.

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What’s the difference between a web developer & UI developer?

Generally speaking, the difference between a web developer and a UI developer is:

  • Web Developer: builds an entire end-to-end web solution.
  • UI Developer: improves the look, feel and usability of an application or web page.

Within the web design and building industry, it is not unusual at all to find people with predominantly graphic design backgrounds who are also UI developers and fully capable of building very attractive and eye-catching front-end user interfaces.

However, they may not be particularly skilled in some of the more technical components that sit behind the user interface. For more complex functions like API integrations with accounting software, setting up a discussion forum or taking bookings through a calendar system — that's the domain of web developers.

Whilst both roles compliment one another and will result in a more polished and functional website, they are really quite different roles. The role of the UI developer is much more narrow and focused on customer experience (CX). So, if your users struggle to browse your mobile app or website because of visual impairment or other physical or cognitive differences, you'd need a UI developer to improve your website accessibility.

Here's a quick summary of the main differences in broad terms:

Web developerUI developer
Makes a websiteMakes a website easier to use
Back-end focusFront-end focus
Builds complex functionsMakes functions accessible to all users
Focus on how website worksFocus on how website feels
Responsible for: hosting, domain registration, content management systemResponsible for: design and aesthetics
Gives the client what they needGives the users what they need
Cares about broken links, sitemap navigation and security certificatesCares about how people interact with web technology or mobile app
Tools: PHP, C++, Java, HTML5, XML, CSS, jQuery Tools: Java, HTML5, SQL database, Adobe Creative Suite

What is a web developer?

A web developer builds the entire website from top to bottom. That includes the structure, design and all the bits you can't see and hardly think about including hosting, domain registration, security, APIs and plug-ins.

A good web developer will have a strong understanding of HTML as well as an expert knowledge of databases and programming languages. They are responsible for building and maintaining websites that are resilient and functional.

You should expect a web developer to be proficient in using:

  • HTML: Standard computer language used to achieve graphical and functional effects on web pages.
  • Javascript: A programming language used to make web pages interactive.
  • PHP, ASP, Java or C++: Programming languages that call the website into existence.
  • MySQL: Open Source system for managing online content in a database.

Not only will a good web developer be skilled in the above, but they will also possess strong project management skills. These are vital as web developers often create a website’s functionality whilst working alongside web designers and UI developers, who create the look and feel.

Throughout the project, the web developer should keep you updated on the costs of the website they are making for you. Generally, a set budget is agreed in advance.

What is a UI developer?

UI stands for User Interface. It is the term given to everything that a user may interact with when using a computer, tablet or smartphone – including the display screen, attachments like keyboards and mice and the appearance of websites and graphics.

Typically the UI developer focuses on the customer experience (CX) or, a little more accurately for web users, user experience (UX). Because they excel in design, colour schemes, font styles and navigation options they are often known as UI designers.

In order to understand the significance of UI, it is necessary to think a little bit about the layered nature of a typical web application. Many such applications are divided down into logical functions, or layers, including:

  • User interface: The look and feel of web-pages and associated apps. Often developed by UX (user experience) designers.
  • Applications layer: Underlying programs written in code that sit behind the UI and are responsible for the functionality of the graphical user interface. Application developers are responsible for this.
  • Network layers: Elements of an application that are responsible for moving data to and from your server and the front end of a website.

Therefore, a UI Developer sits in between UX designers and Application Developers. They combine design skills with technical know-how and are responsible for ensuring things look great and work well.

A skilled UI developer will possess expert knowledge in graphical programs, such as Adobe Photoshop, as well as a strong understanding of coding and HTML.

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Hiring a web developer or UI developer

If you're not exactly sure which role to hire for, have a think about the goals of your project. If your website or web application needs to be easier to use you're most likely in need of a UI designer. If, on the other hand, you want extra functions added to an existing site, or you need a new app built from scratch, it's a web developer you should call.

Here's a handy list of example scenarios and the right professionals for the job:

  • “I want my website to be clear to read and easy to navigate.” UI developer
  • “I need a web app to attract more users to my business.” Web developer
  • “I know what my website needs to do but I don't know how it should look.” UI developer
  • “I want users to be able to upload videos to my existing website.” Web developer

A UI designer will create wireframes – similar to a series of screenshots – to illustrate how your site should look and how users should interact with it in the most intuitive way. These wireframes can then be used by a web developer who will build the website in code, to look and work just like the designs.

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Ellie Wintram Senior engineer at Expert Market

What Web Developers and UI Developers Are Out There?

Sometimes agencies will offer both web and UI developers as part of the same team. Here are some examples of agencies you can engage for your business website or app projects:

  • Built By Buffalo, Brighton: A small web development agency providing beautiful, easy to use websites.
  • D3R, Chichester: Plain-speaking web development company with a wide range of skills.
  • Lilo, London: An award-winning web development agency with global offices and 15 years of experience.
  • Spotless, London: A UX/UI consultancy based in Shoreditch offering a selection of interface optimisation options.
  • Every Interaction, London: Detail-obsessed UI/UX agency who create functional and good-looking solutions.
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What's the cost of hiring a web developer or UI developer?

The answer depends on the scope of your individual project and your quality expectations.

As a very rough guideline, you could hire a freelance web developer for £1,200-£1,900 for a small web app project. However, a larger website build project such as a new ecommerce site will cost you more like £2,000-£10,000+.

When it comes to hiring a UI developer, the costs can be a little lower. This is because the project is often much shorter-term and there are more people with this skill set. To hire a UI developer to create a wireframe design can cost £200-£900. A UI contractor for a mobile app can ring in at £600-£1,600.

Next steps

If you’re clear on the differences between a user interface developer and a web developer, then you may want to read more about the differences between web developers and computer programmers. Knowing who does what can really help the process of building or redeveloping your website.

Or you can read more about other London and UK web development agencies.

If you are looking to hire a web developer, then why not find out how much they charge per project or per hour?

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Sabrina Dougall

Sabrina writes about tech for business as well as consumer software. She covers topics ranging from digital marketing to ecommerce fulfilment, security systems, franking machines, and more. Having run her own successful small business, Sabrina knows first-hand how much there is to keep on top of. Writing with your company’s needs in mind, she distils truly useful product information (without the sales pitch).