Where I fall on the user research vs. UI design line

I just finished listening to the March 31 podcast of Human Tech with their guest Nick Fine (@doctorfine) who was brought on to introduce an idea that shouldn't be radical. He reiterated for all of us that a user experience (UX) is a thing that we all have, it's definitely not something you "do", and above all, research is your ultimate key to success.

One of the main misconceptions companies, stakeholders, and even some self-proclaimed "UX Designers" have when they consider "designing a user experience" is that designing a UI based on all of the best principles and practices will give them what they think they need. But as we know and try to teach, no amount of superb UI design will ever be a catch-all replacement for the need to perform in-depth user research to validate the core ideas being investigated and developed.

As with any good educational podcast, it leaves me wondering, "So where am I fitting in? Am I on the path I want to be on for the sake of us all?" I know I fall more over into the user research side, or at least I ideally want to be primarily residing on that side of the fence.

I am without a doubt someone who will tirelessly try to introduce user centric mindsets, processes, and tools to get companies and peers on the right path. However, I know that in the day-to-day grind, I'm often sucked into the making decisions for the UI developers on what the buttons should look like, what I think our customers will expect to happen when some interactive element is used, what screens we're missing, and more. Yet in the end, I know that I WILL test out each of these decisions with real people well before we go live. My internal reassurance is revived once again.

 Courtesy of gdstream - "User Research Periscope" image taken 9 Sept 2015

Courtesy of gdstream - "User Research Periscope" image taken 9 Sept 2015

I am not a UI Designer and I never was. I can sketch up ideas to get conversations started, but I prefer if it ends there. I would rather rely on someone else with a more visual mind to figure out how to best make the stories I tell come to life in a visual, tactile, and interactive way. I also not nearly as scientific in my probabilistic research as Nick Fine would like us "user researchers" to be, but I believe that if your observational and testing processes are repeatable, then you're on the right track. 

Due to this disparity in developed skill sets, I wondered for a long time just how much my stricter focus on only conversing with users, telling their stories, and testing out designs was hurting my career options without me also learning how to use Sketch, Axure, or any of the popular UI design tools. Talking with job recruiters will do that to you.

It's down-in-the-dirt work experience and podcasts like these that'll reassure you too that this research path is completely okay. Hell, it's what companies need, but just like if they tried to write their own user stories, what they think they need may not be the best solution to the problem they don't fully understand. Now, if UI designers give me a set of InVision slides that I can tweak using something as simple as Paint to get the next idea across (or even make them clickable for usability testing), I'm all for that too.

Playing to your strengths, knowing your weaknesses, and being able to closely collaborate with others is what'll set you apart. Do good things and don't forget to talk to your customers.

I get a lot of people asking me for the answers to things like I’m some guru or an oracle. But I haven’t worked on your brand. I don’t know your users. I don’t know your proposition or your product or your service. I don’t have all the answers, but I do have the methods to get you those answers. There’s no playbook [that I can just hand over like a Bible], but psychology has all the methods needed to find all the gold, all the magic to make it happen.
— Nick Fine