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Ep4. Better at UX Research & Design than AI with Dr. Nick Fine

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In this episode, I’m talking with ⁠Dr. Nick Fine⁠. Nick has been one of the leading UX researchers and a bold voice for the wider UX design community. He has kickstarted initiatives like UX Psychology, as well as influenced the development of user-centric design standards and methods. We will discuss a few hot topics, such as AI, user research and design automation tools being a potential threat to UX research and design, ongoing job market difficulties and how to stay relevant and many more topics.

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So Nick, you’ve been in UX field, I guess, or digital field for multiple decades. And, and knowing that, like how do you think the actual industry shaped up? Like what trends have you seen? Like how did we arrive at this point where, you know, the theme of this podcast is really like what I would label as better at UX than ai, but like, what’s your experience like from, you know, early start?

Yeah. It, when you’ve been doing it for a long time or been around technology, I, or I suppose anything you, you see trends and patterns emerging because of the long longitudinal view. Let’s take the internet to begin with. When the internet was introduced it was a geeky specialist, early adopter kind of thing.

It had a very different community feel. The personalities or the people involved were very different. It then became commercialized and kind of opened up to the rest of the world and all those other forces that exist in the world, including marketing and all that other stuff. And so we went from this incredible information age, which was kind of very short lived, I feel maybe 10 years feels about right.

Kind of, kind of. 2000 to 2010 was probably the information age of, oh my God. We’ve got all this information. It’s incredible. We were a bit over overblown or over swamped with, with information, but it was like, look at what we can do it. How cool is this new thing? It’s next level generational tech.

But then sometime around 20 10, 20 15, you know, everything gets more popular. Facebook is born in 2005 and everything starts to become much more commercial and more this. God, maybe let’s say evil forces, the, the forces of money, mm. Start really affecting technology. And then what we see is the information age.

So you go from this kind of wide-eyed naive isn’t information amazing to oh my God, everybody’s trying to subvert everything to their own means with misinformation and lies and misdirection and all the other stuff that’s going on. So that’s where we’re at today with kind of any technology or anything technology related, be it UX or agile or, or many things.

The mainstream tends to commercialize it and therefore break it. And in my head, it’s like always has been. Like the internet just helped to virtualize what we’ve been already doing. So, you know, mischievous that the evil side of things and like the human behavior ultimately, which is why I also wanted to talk to you.

You know, we can maybe cover a bit of US psychology and, and behavior aspects of that, but specifically with ai, because that has been overhyped in my mind and a lot of other UXers mind. My personal stance is that it’s a great tool and truly impressive with what we have so far, but it’s still just a tool, you know?

Mm-hmm. You know, if you remember the Macromedia days with Photoshop or mm-hmm. Introduction of Google material design. People said that we’re not gonna need product designers because Google material was shaped up and product managers could just come with their ideas and put stuff together and, and roll with it.

You know, you wouldn’t even need research and stuff. But like, what’s your take? I guess with all of that happening right now? AI is, it’s, it’s just released, it’s pre-release almost. It’s beta. Do you see what I mean? Because social media is distorting everything very badly, and that’s the real problem.

We’ve got people who are promoting the benefits of useless AI research, you know, in live research. And they’re not saying this is experimental, go and experiment. They’re saying, look at the way that the future of Uxr is gonna be. I’m just gonna ask the box. I don’t need to talk to users Cetera.

And that’s phenomenally irresponsible. It’s phenomenally naive. And frankly, it’s just stupid. So what we’ve got are people with, there’s this pressure to publish stuff, interesting stuff, and AI is the interesting stuff that gets the attention. So people are publishing lots of things about AI that they really haven’t thought through or are just inexperienced about, and it’s, it’s perverting the direction, it’s affecting the course. People aren’t thinking critically en enough for themselves as yet, and that’s why myself, probably yourself and many other people are kind of advocates for critical thinking. Just because somebody can say something about AI or the future of your job in ux, as you’ve just said with your example, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s gonna come true.

Your LinkedIn title is, is, is, you know, like it kind of humored me when I saw it first and it said better at I think user research, if I’m correct. Yeah. Than ai. Like how better? Like what does that actually mean?

Infinitely better. Like, come on, I’ll tell, I’ll, I’ll stand against AI all day and all night. And I say that with confidence. You know, that’s not arrogance. I say that with confidence. And the reason is this probably for reasons that I know, I think, you know, and I’m pretty much most of the audience will know, but it’s really important to kind of, to just characterize it or make clarify it.

You wouldn’t be talking to me right now if I was some kind of avatar or representation of me because interhuman communication, human interaction psychology is a big deal. It’s a fundamental. So when you’re doing research in the world, you wanna learn something in the world. You can send your army of bots out into the world to learn things.

And that’s what we’re really talking about. Well, you’re not gonna want to talk to a bot. And when you do talk to a bot, as we see with chat bots and other virtual assistant type services you treat them in a very different way. They’re much more menial. Like, do a thing, shall I like, they like, don’t, you’re not gonna tell it.

It’s unlikely you’re gonna tell it truths, you know, or, or, you know, you can speak to it in the same way that you do a human being. You might be able to with some factual stuff, you know, what is your job what does it entail? Do you like red or blue? You know, very mechanical stuff. Yeah. Probably. But our world isn’t mechanical.

I think what we’re really saying is, is what does UXR look look like in six months, 12 months, two years, and five years with AI involved? Okay. So let’s just fast forward to maybe what many would, would consider the nightmare scenario, right?

Where, where Uxr is made redundant by ai. Let’s try to think of that. Try to visualize that world. So I’m a product manager. I’m gonna sit down in front of my research bot or research ai, right? I’m gonna say hello, I want to go learn. Do my customers want it red or blue or, you know, do you know whatever my research objective is?

My research question is or it might be, here’s the latest iteration, here’s version 1.3, 0.5. Go te go usability test it for me and tell me if people can buy my product cleanly, nicely, quickly, et cetera. It will then through an API to one of the recruitment pools, like user testing.com or use interviews or testing time or one of those through an API and you’re already licensed.

We’ll say, okay, hi, I’m Nick’s, Nick’s research bot. I need 20 people on blah, blah, blah, and these are my, these are my screener, blah, blah, blah. Done. So it’s done the recruitment for you and it’ll come back, right? It’ll then write the script for you and it’ll probably run it by you and say, Hey, this is the script I’m planning on doing any, any checks.

No, no, that’s great. Go ahead and run it. It goes ahead and runs that script with those people. It then goes ahead and analyzes the transcript and the behavior from those activities. It then writes you up, A report produces showreels persona, any other outputs that you need. Okay, so we’ve now got pretty much front to back uxr life within a matter of days.

And the limiting factor is the other person, the recruitee, the recruitment folk, right? In that world, yes, you, me, our peers, our colleagues, we’ve all gone by, by and we’ve replaced by a robot AI researcher. Sure. The real question here is, is does thing, do things work for the product manager in that world?

Do they get the insight that helps them make better decisions, prioritize roadmap, do better things? And I firmly believe that that answer is a no. And that’s what I’m staking my career, my reputation, my life on that, for some of the reasons we’ve already discussed around emotion, interpersonal stuff. But there’s tons of validity issues going on here.

Tons, major fundamentals. If you’re a product manager and you don’t know about this stuff and you use your thing and you get a result, And you just take it verbatim. There’s a big, you’re taking one hell of a gamble, that’s one hell of a risk profile and you can then make product decisions on the basis of that.

Gotta be very careful. We have to get the validity issues sorted out with ai. If they, if they are resolved, then yes, you’re right. Mm-hmm. We’re in more of a position, but if they don’t resolve them, why are we building all these massive services based on something that is, has questionable validity.

Yeah. And, and, and haven’t they really seen, I guess, any AI tools right now, which, you know, be anywhere close to that ideal scenario you described? And in particular, I, I think everybody imagines that we are all gonna be, become like probably a product managers in the end at some point. And we’re gonna use all those different tools, but.

The reality is, is always a bit starker. Like for example, myself, you know, you do so much field research, you might do ethnography, you might do even user interviews. Like right now I’m interviewing you, let’s say on, on different topics just to learn from you and the capture of sentiment, you know?

Of the language, of like actually interpreting it. So it’s actionable I’m trying to always picture this thing where we are this sci-fi setting where we are almost like a matrix, like connected through a lot of I iot and sensors and we just download and upload data back and forth.

Yeah. In that scenario, you are almost like describing exactly where we can work with human, but like, I wonder if you could kind of maybe, you know, be, because a lot of audience, I guess are gonna be quite junior, some are gonna be super. Senior practitioners kind of describe the, UX psychology angle to, to this like, have you thought of from that perspective, because it’s, I’m super keen to hear, if there is anything like that where, you know, we just kind of get booked down if a technology, but in reality there is this what others would describe as fluffy aspect of the humanity. But what are your thoughts?

UX psychology was originally meant to be a, a UX splinter group from UX UI effectively, right? It didn’t quite work out that way. And there’s reasons that I will go into at another date. UX psychology is just about behavioral design effectively in, in modern terms, but we can’t get to behavioral design whilst we’re still messing around with this UX UI design thinking, empathy.

World, which is dying out. It really is, and it’s starting to die out quickly. I think some people are realizing that they were wrong or misled, et cetera, and they’re now starting to think more in a more user-centric way. What does UX psychology mean with ai? Ux as you said, non-verbal communication is a big, big deal sentiment and all of those things.

As you and I are talking to each other right now, we’re deliberately giving each other cues and, you know, all of these sorts of things, you know, to, because that’s what humans do. If you’re gonna tell me that the quality of interaction between a human and a computer or human and an AI bot is gonna be exactly the same or at least known difference, I, I’m gonna be extraordinarily surprised, right?

So people are looking to make money or get followers from this new, sexy thing, but no one really knows how it’s gonna work. That’s the truth. Right. The smart ones are the ones that are kicking the tires on it, who are evaluating it.

And if you want to understand valid human behavior, you have to have a certain amount of, of lie detection or about you. Mm-hmm. And that’s a fundamental of any user researcher. We become truth detectors, you know, bullshit detectors, whatever you want to call that. That’s a part of the role. You have to be able to do that.

The tooling that’s out there is just that tooling. You and I as uxr, the only tools we’ve ever needed as researchers has been a pen and piece of paper, maybe, you know, or maybe some video editing software or something, right? Mm-hmm. As a UX d yeah, we probably needed other tools. But as a uxr, we haven’t been tool-based and repositories are a latter day thing.

We never really had those either. So the modern world is trying to get their experience through a tooling and. That’s not the case, and that’s unfortunate. I’m also a pragmatist or a realist. If that’s the way the world is today, then we have to make better tools or, or something. Because if you outsource your brain or your experience to a tool and then the tool changes, you’re in real massive trouble.

Like if you got deeply into Sketch and then Figma came along, you had to retrain into Figma. Or if you’re an person and you’re retraining into, into Figma right now, it shouldn’t matter what the tool is. It, it isn’t about the tool, it’s about the mindset. And we’ve lost too much mindset in this, in this rush for tooling.

On the UX psychology thing, finally, we can’t allow bots to do, never send the machine to do the work of a human. I think that’s movie quote or is it from the Terminator? And that’s the case in, in user research. It really is. We, it’s about humans and, and the tooling. And anything smart is there to help us do the heavy lifting or the analysis or something that’s just tough going.

You and I, we all hate watching back and transcribing Right before trans automatic transcription I spent, you spent hours. Hours, yeah. Right. Yeah. It was murder. We never get, we, we should have medals, right? We should have cups, trophies, awards for the, the sheer amount of man, hour of heavy lifting and then automatic transcription came along and made our life easier.

Did it make us redundant? No, it didn’t. Is AI gonna make us redundant? No, it ain’t. It’s just another tool. I love how you decoupled, I guess, UX D from Uxr. Like, in my mind, I never, I, I try to almost never decouple them, just because you can’t have one without the other, and it’s super dangerous. Do you feel like the uxd is a bit more in danger in a way because maybe it’s a bit more tactical than Yeah, a hundred percent.

I mean, if I’m a UX D I’m a lot more scared than I’m being a uxr right now. Let just talk about the split quickly before I forget. Or, or go off topic much like you, we are both old school. UX consultants or UX architects. That was my role back in old school user-centric UX days.

That meant I was a researcher and a designer. That meant I sat down with the traffic manager or the project manager and told them how much time I needed to do my research. I then did do my research. I then prototype it then I then recruit people and test my prototype with people and just repeat. And that’s ux.

So in my mind it’s just UX and I talk about UXs because it’s, UX in my mind is always research and design. However, we are in a latter day world where there was a split where there isn’t a UX consultant or architect role anymore. It, it isn’t full stack, it is distributed. So you have the designer and the researcher predominantly and often a content person as well.

So, That’s the kind of the product team that’s mostly typical or, you know what I mean? On average, if you look at most teams, the product team is interaction designer or a UX D or, or that kind of a role, a researcher, a content person typically, and maybe a developer depending upon the place. So that’s, but we do have split roles in today’s world.

So I do think in terms of uxr and the activity that they do and the ux d and the activity that they do, what gets crazier is then you’ve got the UX ui, which isn’t necessarily a UX D and that’s what’s pissing me off and is upset me the whole way. I cannot understand why UX UI is still in existence. It serves no purpose.

And if UX UI is gonna get bned by any, by ai, it it, if any role goes first, it’s ux, ui. I can’t see where they’re adding value, cannot see it. If it’s, if it’s like a UX D and they’re working in tandem with a uxr, then that’s beautiful because that’s the UX consultant or architect that we were talking about, just split into two roles that work together on the same product team.

I feel like it’s still a bit of a legacy thing where in, in, at least in my mind, you know, when I would, let’s say hire for UXers and you know, some resumes would come in and it would say ui UX designers, I wouldn’t discount it by no means, but there would be a bit of like a presumption that we may be started as a UI designers and only now starting to develop UX skills.

Yeah. Because it’s rarely that it goes the other way. And even in my. Mentorship groups or you know, advice I give coach people and ux I kind of say just simplify it as well, you know, not oversimplify it so you don’t just become a designer because it could mean so many different things within business that they might ask you to do motion when you have no idea what that is, or let’s say you want, don’t want to do it.

But I feel like it’s also a bit of a disadvantage as to just, you know, label yourself something which is not presenting it. And I love that you mentioned the architecture side, which doesn’t exist anymore. I haven’t seen UX architect in, in years, I would say. And, and if I would, I would probably save that job ad as something like, okay, this is what, what what it used to be.

You know, but I wonder if on, on that note, like, do you feel like and maybe projecting like what the roles would look like in the future. Because I feel like a lot of people who are gonna listen to this, they’re gonna be fearing that, oh shit, I should just drop the U X D, go for U XR and forget, you know, everything I know so far.

Or, yeah. I think that’s a phenomenally dangerous thing to do. Cause if you, if you are watching this or listening to this and you’ve spent a lot of time building up your UX D skills, why would you just bin them? That doesn’t make sense to me, ever. Look, I’ve been on the UX course on the road for a long time in digital.

There are new jobs, sprung up, new roles, new sexy, shiny things that come out every year. Right. There’s always something bigger and better that people wanna jump to. This year it’s AI right now and it’s ai, UX and blah, blah, blah. But in previous years it’s been things like social media manager, I think was the original trendy role.

And then product folk and ux, ui and there’s been lots and lots of these sorts of things. Product was the big one. A lot of UX folk just tapped out and said, I’m gonna go over to product and became product managers about 6, 7, 8 years ago. Fair enough. I understand that that’s when product was kind of reborn or whatever you call that.

The point being is, is that I stuck to my guns, I stuck to my research homeland, if you know what I mean. It’s like, if, if UX is gonna be distributed, I’m gonna stick with what I know, which is research. And if that’s what you know and where you’ve been and you’re doing design, don’t bin it because you’re gonna reset your career.

You’re gonna reset your practice. The things that you do as a designer or a researcher. Are still needed. They just may have a different title. So don’t get hung up on roles and titles too much. Cuz I’m not worried if, if tomorrow I’m called a product researcher, design researcher, behavioral researcher, anything but qual researcher, that one I’ll kill, I’ll leave the, leave the freaking industry, right?

But, but you know, I mean, it doesn’t matter what, what, what you call me, you know, you can call me Bob or Mary. I don’t really care. It’s the job that I do. It’s the role that I play. And so our world will evolve, vault, evolve, I suspect. Okay, this is a Nick fine, original piece of thinking. So therefore it’s either really wrong or really crazy.

I think in the next 10 to 15, 20 years maybe the, the practitioner role becomes much more of a director stroke producer type role. Okay? If you’re a producer or you’re a manager of staff, like a, a, a pro, a program manager or a product manager, You, you are selecting the, the things that you want to, the, the people to do your bidding effectively.

And whether you, if that’s in a tool, it’s kind of the same thing. So you’re directing the things to do the activity. You’re sort of managing people. You’re managing AI people to do your bidding effectively. They’re new minions. So think about a graphic designer, a visual designer, a UX designer, a UX UI person right now is using mid journey, predominantly mid journey 5.1 to get some really great visuals instead of going to the stock library.

It’s just save their time instead of going paging through frigging Shutterstock or Getty or whatever, right? Cuz it’s hard to find a frog tap dancing on the moon, wearing an Elvis mask, right? Mm-hmm. Which you can do in seconds with, with mid journey and in my company colors but that’s all directorial type behavior. What’s really important? Is a director or an art director or a creative director, anyone that’s doing that kind of work, they have developed over that experienced stepladder, that sensibility, that, that sense of what’s good, right? It’s like, call it taste for want of a better term.

Well, as UX folk, we have taste, it’s just our version of visual taste, if you know what I mean, in terms of what’s good. And we will use the tools to fit our taste, if you know what I mean. Right? Yeah. But there is a bit of, you know, if, if I could challenge you on that, like, to me it’s a bit of danger that the taste could be lost, you know, with every new generation.

And I’m not saying that one way is preferred way, but as new people come in and they haven’t ate, like I used to tell people I manage especially who get new to ux, that you, you basically need to develop stomach for crap because you’re gonna eat a lot of crap. You’re just gonna see so many challenges, which no bootcamp is gonna prepare you for.

Yep. And it’s gonna, nothing to do with actual work of ux, it’s gonna be everything, you know, to do with the people management, stakeholder management, difficult people, everything like that. And maybe bypassing that type of thing where you go through trenches to get to vest status of a general is a bit, you know, is a bit dangerous.

Yeah. And that’s exactly right. Or they won’t, but they’ll know how the sausage is made, but they won’t know what a good sausage looks like.

So they can make all the sausages in the world, but they won’t know what a good one looks like. And so I think what’s gonna happen, what we will see here is. Yeah. This is the death, unfortunately, of mentorship and the death, the, the, the lack of senior mentorship within team, like not having to buy coaching and external conferences.

Mm-hmm. And, and all that training that people spend money on should be happening natively within the team. So that trickle down, that taste trickles down so it becomes cultural, right? Because we killed seniors or we killed real seniors, or we just, there aren’t real seniors around anymore.

That trickle down isn’t happening. So that taste isn’t happening. People don’t know what good looks like anymore and they’re overworking and boiling the ocean in many, many cases cuz they’re doing what they think looks good instead of what actually looks good. It’s like when you first got Photoshop and you’re using all the filters and you produce something and it’s really fugly, but you don’t know that.

Cause you think it looks really cool, but it’s not. And it’s the same thing. You’re producing sausages that you, that are just wrong. The world’s gonna have to learn that mentorship equals performance, money, roi, profits re reduced costs. That design has known it for decades. Design created that ladder so that an, a creative director has good, good taste, good sense of art direction and creative direction, and they learn it over many contexts, over many times.

UX is exactly the same. This is the real problem. And ironically, this is the controversial part. The people breaking that ladder are the people who climbed it in design, who don’t wanna climb it in ux, who they think I was a creative director that makes me head of UX or a senior ux. It doesn’t. It makes you a junior. And they hate that. And I don’t blame them. It’s not right. Mm-hmm. You know, but it’s just facts. That’s the way it is. So in order to get back the value in UX in general, we need to be passing the mentorship knowledge down. So that it’s cultural so that people know what good is look like so that we make money.

That’s how it has worked. It just needs to work that way again.

What good UX is like versus what it, it isn’t.

You kind of mentioned creative direction art. You know, or, or that type of thing. It’s probably not bad, but like what is it ultimately then? Yeah, no UX for me, quite simply is the conversion of user needs into design solutions, right? To create an optimal experience effectively.

That definition has, has worked for me since 2010, and I’ve tested it repeatedly. I’ve now got two versions of it, like a high level version and a low level version depending upon which, which perspective you need. At the very highest version is the conversion. Its the, the creation of optimal experience.

At the lower level, it’s the conversion of user needs into design solutions, right? It’s always been about needs into solution. Always. That’s the core. Of ux. That’s the very fundamental heart of UX is I know a thing about a user, and I’m gonna design to it specifically. That link, it got completely lost, forgotten, ignored, redefined by the ux UI crew who made it all about Figma and visuals and, and wire framing or high fidelity wire framing, which isn’t really wire framing at all.

It’s just visuals. And that’s where we’ve been for five years, maybe longer. And it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s ruined the industry. The reason why people don’t know what good looks like is because people think good is a pretty shiny portfolio of really high fidelity looking stuff. And that’s not ux, that’s visual design.

If you’re not doing the user need into solution thing, and you can’t demonstrate it in your portfolio, You’re not doing ux, that’s a designer’s portfolio, not a UX portfolio. I guess there is a lot of factors why that happened, but you could kind of even argue that you know, a product manager or, or any stakeholder could have taken that needs to solutions, you know, as a principle level statement and said, okay, I can do this.

And, and to me the, one of the big kinda pet piece has also been the obsession with the fail fast approach too, which then influenced that. A lot of designers just kind of parked a lot of deep research or understandings element of, you know, even if we take something like a double diamond just ignored the first diamond and just jumped and said, we can very cheaply produce thousands of designs and then at least one is gonna work.

Mm-hmm. And, and this is where, to me it’s kinda like the driving force, but. I guess, what is your take on that? Because I feel like, you know, you are gonna join tomorrow an organization and someone is gonna be like, we need to move faster. Okay. Here’s what happens, and I think I’ve just, you inspired this one.

This is a big one. I got things one through, look what ha, what you’ve basically called out or suggested is kind of brute force user research or a form thereof. Right Now when you put an AI behind an M V T machine, holy shit, that’s terrifying actually. That’s what I mean about big deal. Mm-hmm. I need to think that one through.

Cause it, you literally just inspired that, but. What does that look like? Yeah. Do you mean AI being basically just churning UIs until it gets it right? Is that No, see if we, if we’re talking about M V T and the web analyst role of Yeah. Optimization in particular and experimentation in an M V T context, and you’re say, you know, loading the machine with specific variable, not variables, you know cases that you wanna test, ab different variants is what the word I’m looking for.

Sorry. And AI can generate better hypothetical experiments quicker, and it can run them quicker than any web analyst or user researcher can do. Mm-hmm. Now, I wonder, is that the most powerful role of an ai? Is that where we really, why are we doing that as humans? The web analyst UX interaction or user research interaction for me has always been paramount.

Like it’s qual and quant in harmony type thing on, you know what I mean? It’s two sides of a very important coin or two research capabilities, but what happens when you just put that, like let AI take care of it or, or AI as a service or that as a service. That’s quite a big deal. It is, but it, it’s like in my head as well, have been pondering for on, on this for so long. Just doing that automation of variants, I guess is we’re not nowhere close to being there. I feel like it’s, it’s also gonna come at a big expense because then you have to have enough of users to interact and check those deltas and say, this is the change, the positive change, but then also take the damage.

Of crappy UX and even I feel like I don’t know if you, you’ve seen this that Amazon FTC case with a prime constellations most recently, which, which is Oh yeah, it was naughty. A big lawsuit. Yeah. And it’s like, even to come up with something evil, right?

Like that, it’s, you couldn’t come up with that with just automation. It’s like someone has to put a mastermind, a real black hat, and that’s human evil kind of thing, right? Yeah, yeah. And, and kind of go for that. On that note one of the questions I got pinged in my dms before recession was one of the UXers is struggling to manage the product manager who’s quite obsessed with ai. And is almost looking for like, how might we add, you know, a chat G B T, like interactions or value to the existing product, which I don’t even know the industry, Yeah, I’ve had similar but, but still that’s a good challenge.

That’s a good thing. Cause let’s face it, AI is a massive deal. Any product manager is gonna be thinking, what does this mean for my product? Cause they will, I don’t think it’d be a good product manager if you didn’t ask that question. But we need to turn that question on its head cuz we UX people we need.

And help educate the product folk because they’re not UX people either. Is what user need or pain point does the AI help solve? Or what feature or what function or what is the we do that can meet a user need or a pain point that AI helps with? Right. That’s the question to ask. Not I’ve got this thing, where do I shoehorn it or where do I kind of bolt it on?

That’s wrong. Thinking. That’s kind of top down thinking instead of bottom up thinking we are bottom up folk, generally speaking. Mm-hmm. And yes, this is innovative, but that’s innovation in the execution, the needs and the pains and nothing new or fancy. That’s workflow and context and all of that stuff.

But what would you suggest to do for that folk? And maybe on a, maybe tactical level as well? How do you actually do it? Yeah, yeah, exactly and maybe it’s not even ai, like someone could, you know the other day I was asked, a stakeholder came to me and said, we want this feature, or just design me a mobile app.

Yeah. You know, that’s it. Like, how would you actually click from your, I think you have to do the initially, cuz this is a maturity kind of a, I wanna say problem. That’s, I don’t mean to be rude, you know what I mean? It’s a maturity curve of thing. It’s a learning point. There we go. That’s a nicer way of saying it.

Is to do the work for them. I, in that regard is to find the user need or the pain that, that AI helps resolve on the, you know, look at their roadmap and look at their thinking and look where they’re trying to go, what they’re trying to achieve, and see where AI ca can fit in. But it’s based on evidence that’s based on something that you’ve learned or that you know about.

That’s, I think, is a much more powerful thing because then you are advising your product manager, which is what you should be doing. What you shouldn’t be doing is taking orders from them and just doing what they tell you to do blindly, which I hope no one is, but you know what I mean? You’ve got a brain, you’re a consultant, you’re, you’re there to advise.

And influence as well as this, I feel like a big one but I guess one of the challenges to that, and I wanted to kind of pick your brain because I, in the past myself, I’ve been called a dogma test.

Oh, I would receive. And that’s exactly why I’m bringing you, because I, I’ve seen I think a few things, you know, on LinkedIn here and there about you specifically. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m, I’m sure listeners also when we are talking kind of can pick up some of the strong notions too. Yeah. You know, I, I lost it last week and, and kind of ranted on it. That was my dogmatic post. And if you Google or if you look up Nick, fine and dogmatic, you’ll probably find it quite quickly. Dogmatic is a relative position.

It’s a subjective opinion. Because what you’re doing is you’re. I actually had to look this up and ask friends, okay, I’m gonna put my hand. I was like, what does this dogmatic word mean? What is dogma? And it’s like, it’s, it’s, it’s saying things that, that, that you are holding out to be true. I was like, okay.

So people are thinking that I’m standing out and saying, UX should be this way, when it might not necessarily be that way. Well, that’s not the case. Okay. And I can tell you why I am not dogmatic for all the reasons I said in that post. All I’m doing is, is representing an old world, the old user-centric world, for which there are lots of people in and around LinkedIn in the community who will give me very vocal, open and private support saying You’re, you know, we love you, Nick.

Keep doing what you’re doing. You’re speaking for the community, all of that good stuff. So I know from a lot of validation or feedback, whatever you wanna call it, that, that, there’s, there’s that. But for people who have come in since 20 15, 20 16, since the Gold Rush, the ux UI era, if you’ve only come into the world and you haven’t seen the old world, then I might look like a dogma person, dogmatic person.

Because I’m being forceful about a certain way of doing things, but it’s not that I’m representing them as facts, I’m just representing historical fact. It’s just, if you dunno about the history, it seems like it could be dogma and that, and it really does show true colors in lots of people out there who hold themselves out to be seniors and experienced and big followers.

But it really exposes their actual experience because they can’t have been in the game as long as they say they have with that kind of an attitude. To be honest, I’m always conflicted of fat you see all the new things coming up and you know, the shaping of the roles, again, the titles, which is such a minutia thing.

It’s, it’s quite irrelevant to the industry, but still it affects so much because people, especially new ones, kind of position themselves in their careers and say, I want to be this. And then, then, and nothing else matters. And you know, we mentioned as well the UX architecture, which kind of disappeared, but, but it was really just consumed of other titles and things of that nature.

But it always kind of conflicts me. And that’s maybe my personal thing because, you know, it depends what day you ask something of me. I, you know, one day I might just be like, okay, we just, let’s just call ourselves designers and forget about it and then fight individual fights. Because then you’re gonna be left off with unique challenges, which someone might have.

But, you know, no one can provide mentorship or, or kind of like tell you that this is what you access. This is what u i and like you’re not gonna have a unique You know, a challenge or a problem someone can help you solve, basically. But, but I wondered like from your, you know, because you have so much expertise, like working with more junior people, I guess, you always giving advice online, but like, what’s the most common advice you think you are giving today, however, dogmatic or however, you know, maybe inflammatory to some people, but like, I wonder what what that is exactly.

This isn’t the most common advice I’d given people, but this is the best advice I can think of right now for people that are juniors and mids, I would probably say don’t be in such a rush to be a senior. I think so many people who predate you have rushed to be senior and to feel important or to have a bigger salary or a bigger title, and they’ve completely missed all of the learning.

And there’s a lot of people, lot of leaders, Who have never been practitioners at all or have got minimal experience at one or two brands, that’s a very narrow horizon. That’s blinkered view. If you miss out on ux, most people will tell you you can’t even work out what UX is in your head until you’ve done it for a number of years.

You, no one can ever tell you what UX is. You will work it out through repeat activity in different contexts. So how can you be a leader or a practitioner of any level if you don’t go through that learning curve? It’s so important. The reason why I’m able to be so powerful or dogmatic or assured is cuz I know what works and I know it with extreme levels of confidence and I’ve done it under extreme levels of pressure and I’ve made money for big brands, small brands, public sector, agency, whatever.

Mm-hmm. When you can do that, you’ll be able to to do the right thing. Here’s a great example for you. Imagine you are a musician of any variety. After three years of playing, you’re not ready for the Royal Albert Hall or any kind of, you know, Philharmonic orchestra or, or Wembley or Glastonbury performance or pick a venue near you.

It probably takes you 10 years and lots of practice and lots more. If you were to say, Hey, I’m, I’m a three year pro violinist. I want to play in the first violinist slot. You wouldn’t make it past the trial and if you did make it onto stage, you’d be laughed off because it would be embarrassing and you would be terrible.

And that’s what we see in the UX world today. Lots of people playing really shitty music, but they don’t know how bad it sounds. And there’s more people who like bad music than people who know what good music is.

I wanted to ask you about the UX leadership in general, you know, and most challenges. And I feel like you one wake up call, which a lot of UXers have, and this is more general theme I guess, but it’s a pain point where it doesn’t matter what seniority you are, you are always gonna struggle in the job market or you are al unless you’re gonna find environments.

Like Yeah. If I would take your. You know, your metaphor of like, bands and, and kind of like a, you know, fine tuning of a, of a, you know, music. You’re gonna need to look for the same band basically after you’re done. Yeah. And I feel like it’s, it’s only a matter of time before you are very humbled because you’re gonna apply for this position and their UX leadership, let’s say Uxr is gonna be solid.

It, it’s just not gonna stick. No, and that’s why I always recommend people like, just, just make sure to just almost like persevere through the things which are difficult today because it’s gonna pay off. But that’s such a big point. Vi really massive, like dealing with shit, like doing hard things.

I try to teach my 10 year old this right now. It’s such an important skill. It’s so important. Our world or any world, it’s all messy. It’s horrible. We can’t have an easy hedonistic life, or if you want that kind of a life, get out of digital. This isn’t the place for you. It’s just, it’s messy and complicated.

Sticking with things, yes, it’s painful, but you, you get, first of all, it gets you a thicker skin so you can deal with things in the future. When they come up, you can make it better, but you also get some confidence about yourself because you know that when I’m in a shitty situation in the future, it worked out before.

It’ll work out for me again, or I’ve learned stuff. Also, there’s this culture like, of like, making mistakes is bad, like failure. I would, I failed more than most. That’s how I know more than most, but it’s only cuz I’ve been allowed to fail or I’ve been allowed to fail with a mentor to help pick me up again or to show me the right way forward. I always say fail, but not at the expense of a user, you know? Yeah, right. So, because some failures can be just devastating for the business and everything, but, but like, as we touched the job market, like I would be really keen to hear your thoughts or maybe even advice, you know, for people like we are, again, it, it depends where, let’s say the US market right now is, is dire.

European, UK market is also pretty bad. I cannot even talk about Asian markets because I’m sure it varies and it depends who you ask. But like, what’s your take about the market in general, especially job seekers, because I feel like there’s one more influx of junior. People who are coming in and trying to learn.

There is a lot of career changers as well, but also like so much of a senior folk who again, might be frustrated, might be laid off, might be just, you know, needing of a change because we’re like shaken so much. But like, what’s your kind of take? Do you have any advice for them? Well I’ve, I’ve got some bad news, which is if you, if you’re not in UX currently, honestly, and I hate to say this.

Mm, I wouldn’t recommend getting into it. I think there’s too many very unhappy seniors. There’s a lot of very unhappy, not seniors. It’s not a good world to get into if you’re completely fresh. But if you’re already in here and it is your vocation, it is your career already, then fair enough. Let’s talk to that.

But don’t start. We’re in a dangerous position right now. We’re in a very dangerous position where the old school UXs, who know what the good sausage looks like, you know who’s got the taste, who knows what good looks like, is in a very small minority our UX world is dominated by everybody else. And so the signal to noise ratio is so imbalanced that we’ve lost so much ground that I don’t know if we can get it back anymore. I think this is the problem. So the fundamental problem is, is that UX died with the gold rush, and it’s been having this death of a thousand cuts slowly and agonizingly playing out in public, culminating in redundancies, and people being fired from their jobs and whole teams being dismantled.

What that means is, is that UX and the, the perception of new world UX is not good, cuz it hasn’t been de delivering value cuz it isn’t ux, it’s just, it’s using our name. But, but that doesn’t mean, say UX goes away and stays dead because the digital world, the it world, you know, the, the, the, the world of producing stuff needs ux, whether it’s called UX cx.

P mm-hmm. From product experience or, or anything else moving forwards, like I said earlier, we don’t care. Right. But the thing that we do needs to be done. Yeah. Both the research and the design, the ux e bit. Mm-hmm. So the world is gonna either have to relearn UX from scratch like we all did back in the day, which I find mind blowing, but is entirely possible.

We’ve got a fully formed user-centric process that works. Why don’t they just do it, get the value back, and then get jobs back, and then get UX back on a trajectory. I feel like I, I want to challenge you on math as well in a way because I want to not, inspire is not the right word, but I want, always want to deliver the truth to the people, right. And kind of just tell this is exactly what UX is. Mm-hmm. No bullshit. Mm-hmm. You know, you’re definitely gonna go through hell basically because it’s not easy. It’s just like any other scientific job minus the Yeah. You know, minus with peer reviews and, and everything else, which we could debate, you know, endlessly.

Yeah. But, but it’s kind of like, to me it’s also quite dangerous that. Someone is just gonna hear that and is gonna be like, okay, well then I’m just gonna go and do UI work. Yeah, yeah, yeah. And, and then you maybe lose that person who could have been champion of Yeah. U user centricity down the road.

But, you know, but look, we know that just doing UI work, it doesn’t work. Cause lots of ’em have just been fired or it predates ux. You know, the reason why we do UX is so there isn’t just UI work. That’s when the, the lunatics were running the asylum. But we also have plenty of data or evidence or anecdotal evidence when a delivery lead, a pm a designer does their own research, things go bad really badly, and it’s usually a delayed thing.

We also know that research or doing the research part of UX is a risky business. It’s a, it comes at risk, shall we say. UX folk like you and I or people who are more senior user researchers are very used to taking that weight on our shoulders. Other folk, other roles are not used to it. And if you’re gonna make a product roadmap decision based upon your own research, you better have a good degree of confidence in it.

A, a very high degree of confidence. And so that’s why I’m saying people can go off dark side and, you know, play to what PM or any other force wants, it won’t perform and everything comes back to that. It won’t deliver what you want it to. So you can go do all the checkbox activity, it’s not gonna meet your outcome.

And that’s a problem. I want to kind of even highlight this even more. It really depends on the project or a product or the issue you’re solving, but the performance is, Like, to me, it seems like the, the, the, the things which actually matter, which you’re swallowing if you use research usually have like a big effect down the line, down the road.

Mm-hmm. Let’s say having worked with public sector digital services mm-hmm. Here in uk the actual effect of those digital services can be observed if one-to-one user testing usability, observations, you know, kind of drawing out projections here and there, but the actual impact is, could take years.

And sometimes, like even now, I’m hearing some of the successes and not so great successes about things I worked on way back down the road. And sometimes even, you know, you figure out, oh, that, that thing I worked on five years ago just won a, an award. Just now because it took so long to maybe bring it to the market or maintain it to the optimal rate.

And of course it tells me that I did a shit job back in a day before it took, you know, so long to, to get to this date. But I feel like it’s, it’s, it’s also a bit of a mixture of a world because those easy fail fast things are easier to track because they’re so isolated. But those bigger challenges and strategic initiatives mm-hmm.

Which you actually pile up so much research could take so long. It’s both like double-edged sword of positive feedback, but also could be negative feedback down the road. And if you take the UX failures of I don’t even know what the good example is. Maybe let’s take Epic games. The Fortnite, you know, that cancellation thing where we find I, I’m gonna but butcher this number, but it was something like 200 to 500 million because of one is ability disaster.

I can almost guarantee that it was designed and left for years until someone picked up. And by that time you don’t even have that person to point fingers to or that team, you know, it’s, yeah. It’s just someone to kind of be responsible for it. But yeah. I, I dunno if this is relevant. I was in a, I was looking at some software recently, let’s just say that I was being shown, shown some software.

They had a drop list in it and it was quite a big drop list in depth and in width. So just a really texty drop list. And it wasn’t in alphabetical order. So it was a nightmare drop list. And it had been in the software for quite some time and the PM was like, yeah, we really need to use the test.

This thing. I’m like, in my head I’m thinking, who needs to use to test that? That’s just wrong, right? That’s just needs fixing. That is obviously an engineer or designer or somebody who is not UX savvy, has just knocked a drop list together as a, it’s done, it’s complete, but it’s not got the UX. Quality to it, shall we say?

Lots of those things kind of hang around and people point fingers backwards. It was their fault. It was. I think what’s the way that I’m looking at these things is, is these things all make it through into live at some point, or they shouldn’t do, but they do.

Mm-hmm. If you’ve got research as a business, as usual activity, if you are basically kicking the tires on your thing regularly, these things should come out in the wash really quickly. You shouldn’t really find them. I get to see lots of really bad experience in today’s world. Cause none of it is tested.

There’s not, there’s no lag, there’s no, it’s just, it hasn’t seen a user researcher or any kind of UX in the first place. That’s, I think, the biggest problem today. But because you never escape those things as well, which is another thing, it’s like, doesn’t matter how senior you get or how many generally you get, you’re always exposed to those things to some extent.

Or you have a, like a proximity to, you know, to pick up and use that as an example. But, and here’s the thing though, because UX is latterday definition is so visual, it’s not thinking about the interactive component element of it. And so if you’re looking at a drop list and how to structure it, you know, that’s much more architectural.

It’s not visual, it’s more interactive. And Figma historically hasn’t been a, an interactive prototype or of any real value until now. You know, you know what I mean? Which means if you’re testing Figma prototypes, you’ll never test testing the quality of droplets to that level. Yeah. Which is, this is why UX is back in the dark ages, which is quite exciting, right? I don’t think I ever fed back to, to Figma that we need conditional logic or variables or things of that nature, but that’s exactly what UX tools were about to, to date. And, and you know, I feel like this is a really good positive development. But anyways, this is awesome stuff.

Like, I wonder if you, if you are able to help out the community, because I received so many questions. Specifically with the AI tools again, yeah. But people are quite, you know, still worried. They may be looking, and I’m summarizing a lot of different questions how do you actually remain indispensable as a UX designer?

And, and when I say UX designer, it could mean a lot of things here. It could mean that we specialize research or product design? How, how do you make yourself indispensable if you’re making the company money?

If we, in the old school, we used to say, if you’re washing your own face if you are cash positive or money positive, your business, even in an indirect way, you are valuable, right? You don’t fire people who are making your company money. Right. You only fire people and make people redundant. When you think, well, I’ve got, I need to be more profitable.

Who can I get rid of? Where’s the least value? Well, that’s a perception of value thing. So if you wanna make yourself invaluable and wanted or needed is you make money for the business. And UX, as I keep saying, is a performance practice. So whether you’re a researcher or a designer, you need to be thinking commercially.

You need to be thinking in terms of the business needs, what your PM needs, your product manager needs, because they’re getting it from upstairs, from the C-suite or whoever it is. So they’re stuck in this wedge between big business, top table, C-suite, and users and, and product teams. And that’s quite a position to be in.

So if you can help ’em make money in that position, I e balance the needs of the of the business with the needs of the user. Welcome to the world of ux that makes you a very powerful business consultant. And a business consultant is very, very valuable. That’s what makes me valuable because I’m a really great researcher and business consultant.

Hmm. Right. If you just tell me to bug off and do a survey, I’m not gonna be so good for you. Yeah. Or do a design right. Like return some sort of wire. Yeah. But I feel like it’s also a bit of a growth mindset in that too, right? Like where you have to be quite open to it. Like again, we, we covered AI tools and just applying it and learning it and, and taking it on, and being maybe flexible with titles as well.

Mm-hmm. So I feel like that’s, that’s yet another thing to one super tactical question which, which I feel like is gonna touch a bit of research be before I wrap up. But one of the questions was about the quantitative side. Yeah. And I’m sure you know from UX research perspective, quant is always a big challenging bit. It seems like it doesn’t matter who you are. The qu side is always gonna be a big challenge. What are your takes on that?

Only if you don’t have data science skills? Right, because it’s, it’s like you are outsourcing your statistical or data science ability to the bot, which is great because frankly, my stats isn’t as good as it used to be. But this comes back to that M V T stuff. We talked about M V T and ai, I think.

Right. Even if it’s survey bot survey AI bot, right? So it’s not doing everything, it’s just doing a recruitment and administration and well analysis of a survey. I don’t see why it can’t do that extremely efficiently embedded than a human being. Right? Why should I have to do that? I’m gonna get my bot to do it for me, but that doesn’t replace my job.

It just means I’ve got a better helper. I’ve got a better calculator. I’ve got, you know what I mean? A better spreadsheet type thing. I have never made any distinction between qual and quant in my career.

I mean, in my UX career, I mean in academia it’s a different story. I think that those words are in our vocabulary because of the influence of market research. Yeah, because we aren’t treading on each other’s toes. There is a lot of overlap. But I don’t think the UX world, especially at today’s level of maturity, needs to concern itself with that distinction, right? We can have philosophical arguments as to whether a, like at scale or a liquor scale is a qual or quant thing, you know? I mean, these are philosophical or I don’t really care. I’ve got other things I need to deal with. Mm-hmm. I don’t consider surveys quant research. There you go. That’s my opinion. Lots of people do. No, you know, and, and maybe they’re right. Maybe I’m wrong. I don’t really know what, and I actually don’t really care. It’s just not relevant. It doesn’t change my life. One io it yeah, it’s what’s important is multiple. What’s important is to multiple perspectives, multiple data perspectives.

Mm-hmm. I, I do agree. And it’s, it’s, it’s funny when you say that in your career you never distinguished. I kind of had to reflect. It’s, it’s quite rare that in the professional world you would drive if, let’s say quant or qual like you would drive if something like value or you know, why you’re doing that.

And even if, like, I remember driving some workshops and I would say, you know, like a kickoff workshop where I would say product team, engineering team stakeholders, please help me map out exactly what we can capture on a qu side and then see what we can capture on a qualitative side and just driving it as a collaborative way to plan the research so everybody’s involved.

And people would get confused and I would just then, you know, tag the quant site and say analytics or, you know, user insights and then everybody would kind of perk up and say, okay, I get it now. Like this is what we can do. Let me give you a big bombshell. Because let me just write this down so I don’t forget it.

We’re only talking. This is, you’re gonna love this one. There’s so much in our world. This qu quant thing has come from the, this massive need to do discoveries. There is a massive, massive demand in the UX world to do discoveries. I get called pretty much daily by a, a recruiter saying, could you do a discovery for X, Y, and Z?

It’s all, there’s a huge demand for discovery. Now, back in the day within didn’t do massive discoveries like we do anymore these days. Okay? It that, that’s a latter day thing. I was never part, I’m an evaluative user researcher. That’s predominantly where I’ve come from. I’m a, I’m a user tester for want of a better word, right?

I’m a behavioral researcher. I’ve spent hours and hours and hours in UX labs doing lots and lots and lots of user research with people. The quantum quant distinction, I think is coming out because of people discussing about discovery methodologies. Do we do qud? When do we do quant? Blah, blah, blah.

Cause they’re trying to understand the needs of the users through this kind of upfront discovery phase. It’s new to me. It was new to me. I’ve done many discoveries by now, but three or four years ago, it wa I hadn’t done a discovery none of my peers had done, or a few had done in government. Cause that’s a different, different thing.

Yeah. But generally speaking, right. So the world has lurched away from evaluative, inter generative, and my personal or professional opinion, And I know this is controversial and you are welcome to disagree with this. You your audience, everybody, it’s just, this is what works for me. Evaluative is what keeps me safe.

I will kick the tires on anything and I will learn stuff. Disco comes at is a, it, it’s different sample sizes, different levels of confidence, different everythings, yeah. You kind of can’t lose with evaluative. I don’t feel the same way about discoveries. Mm-hmm. I mean they’re, they’re important and they, they’re important direction and you’re mad if you don’t do one.

Yeah. But I think they’re overplayed and et cetera. And I, I do agree to an extent because I also believe that discovery can be made not just by a UX or, or driven or facilitated. It doesn’t have to be. So a lot of it is, it happens like even sometimes I talk to businesses, you know, on consultancy terms and I’m asking, have you done user research?

And they say, no, we haven’t done any, like, we have no user researcher. And I say, but someone is doing it. Like, how else are you making these hypotheses or decisions? Maybe not that’s right. Terms or but it also depends on like how much uncertainty you have. Like, let’s say if you come in there as a consultant and we say, do you, we have no vision.

We don’t even know what the product is gonna be like. We have, we don’t know who the customer is. It’s, you could maybe go direct into like evaluative and just churn something and test it. But again, it’s like there is appropriate tool for appropriate issue. I’m sure you Yep. You don’t agree. You know, I’ve been in that situation many times.

In fact, probably most times where there’s been no research maturities on the floor, people dunno who the users are, roadmap’s a mess or is wrong. So at that point, my first port of call is te kick. I’ve got a thing. Hmm. Like kick the test it, kick the tires on it, learn something, learn stuff, and then move on in the investigation.

And op the investigation opens up, you learn more. I make better decisions, better choices or change methodology, change sampling, all kinds of stuff. Change script. But there’s too many people that like, they wanna save this all up for this one big discovery thing, like a bus that if you don’t get it, the next one doesn’t come for another year. So if you’re just constantly, even if you’re constantly doing evaluative work, you are, believe it or not, you’re building persona level insight. Absolutely. Yeah. I feel like it’s a, it’s a really good one to end a podcast on as well. You know, I’m really appreciative of your time.

Is there anything else we can share with the audience or At the moment? No. LinkedIn is where I am most noisy. So if you need to get hold of me there, but I would just recommend please keep it brief. I get a ridiculous amount of PM today from everybody.

So I don’t have time to to read long ones. So if you’ve got a an ask, please make it brief. Thank you. Nice one. Awesome. Well, thank you Nick. Thank you very much for having me. This has been great. Really enjoyed talking to you. Thanks very much.


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