This week we’re chatting with Merit mentor and investor Nicholas Wu about design, UX research, Canadian tech companies, and how work challenges are similar across companies, stages, and careers.
Nicholas Wu is a Toronto-based design researcher. After graduating from the University of Waterloo with a degree in psychology, he worked in user experience design and research at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. He is currently a Senior Design Researcher at Loblaw Digital.
Want to talk to Nicholas more about design, research, and growing your career in tech? Book some time with him on Merit.
An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation is below.
Rachel Spurrier: You started your career at CIBC, which is the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, as a UX designer, but later pivoted into research. What led you to switch tracks, and what are the main differences you’ve found between UX design and UX research?
Nicholas Wu: The field [of UX research] was less popular and less established when I joined. At the time, it was much more common for UX designers to do the whole end-to-end process, including research, which some refer to as a “unicorn” model. Whereas now, it’s become a little bit more specialized.
In terms of why I pivoted, the roles were not as differentiated at the time, so as they were evolving, it allowed that opportunity for differentiation. And, because [UX research] was also a field that was establishing credibility, both in the industry and within the company, I felt I could make more impact towards my goals in the UX research field. My interests lay a lot more in understanding our users’ core needs to make better decisions in the future as opposed to coming up with wireframes or facilitating the actual creation of what we were working on.
We’d been fortunate enough to establish these roles to make that pivot into research. And, I think the biggest difference between the two is that designers are facilitating the overall creation, while researchers are very much involved in facilitating the right understanding of the user.
The biggest difference now is that researchers have the opportunity to go deep into really understanding those core user needs, whereas designers are a little bit more facilitators of the overall process. [Designers’] processes most typically are human-centered, but they don’t necessarily have the luxury to go as deep to really understand some of those core questions, because they’re focused on actually delivering the product.
RS: That’s a really great point about the UX researcher being able to have a depth of understanding of the user and their needs. UX research can be one of the most notoriously misunderstood roles in tech. How would you describe the role of the UX researcher in the design process, and what value can it bring to overall product development?
NW: Depending on the company’s research roles, if they’re framed as design research or UX research, depending on who or the practice, they might lean in particular directions, like more quantitative, more qualitative—maybe even more market research. But when I think of UX research and design research, in terms of the overall design process, I almost see the role’s core value being about facilitating that understanding for those who are actually working on that product, even though obviously the core responsibilities tend to be finding those actual human insights or user insights.
So, thinking about how you get involved throughout the classic Double Diamond process—it’s very challenging for one person to go out and do research and give a report, and then that’s it. It can’t just be a cold handoff. So I think the biggest thing for a researcher is to get involved in the process past the actual research. We’re actually speaking to users and facilitating that understanding across the design process, whether it’s with designers and product managers, or more senior-level stakeholders making more significant decisions.
It’s very challenging for one person to go out and do research and give a report, and then that’s it. It can’t just be a cold handoff. The biggest thing for a researcher is to get involved in the process past the actual research.
RS: For our readers who may not know about the Double Diamond, or about that earlier phase of product development, what does it look like when the user research has been conducted to help other members of the team understand those user insights? What’s the body of the work, and what does it mean to work with, for example, a product designer, or a UXer and product manager on that?
NW: In a lot of the contexts I’ve worked in, it’s usually diverged and converged into solutions. So, PMs and designers are typically focused on that sort of second diamond [of delivering solutions]. But because of the pace, they might not have enough time to do that first diamond, or that first diamond might be being done in parallel while they’re delivering other initiatives.
It’s hard to get dedicated time with a product manager or a designer to actually work and think because they’re delivering your day-to-day product [work]. In terms of what it looks like for a researcher, often it is definitely very messy and involves a lot of other stakeholders, so more senior, like a lead PM, because a lot of those questions are so much more wide-ranging, and more significant questions that can affect larger areas of the business or might have implications to other product lines.
A lot of that time is spent herding cats to make sure we’re all in the same room to build that shared understanding. And it’s a lot more disjointed if you don’t have the luxury of running something like a bigger design sprint. But then, when you actually manage to herd those cats and build that understanding because they’re going through this process with you, it’s often met with decision making.
I personally like an embedded model where I can really work and be part of our product managers’ and product designers’ regular rituals and sprints, so I can understand their problems. I like to try and answer their questions in those rituals in that sprint cadence. Then we get into a rhythm where we know what lead time we might need to answer some of those in-between questions. What can I dig into to do a little bit of research that might take a bit more time? And then I find it most effective to go away and do my research, then loop back into something like a working session to answer those questions. Because really, our goal here for this second diamond is to iterate and to get to the best solution we can for our customers.
RS: Funnily enough, when you said “herding cats,” I was in a workshop once, back in my previous life as a product manager, and small groups were supposed to come up with definitions of different phases of the Double Diamond, and someone for that first diamond actually chose gifs from a commercial that had come out a few years ago, I think, of cowboys herding cats. So, I think it’s spot on that that’s what happens.
NW: I think that diagram is a concise way to describe the process, but a lot of challenges designers, researchers, and PMs have is how much time they can actually put into that first diamond. And I think that that diagram is just a little bit deceiving in how that first diamond goes, because sometimes it’s done by [senior] people or the business, and then it cascades down. But it’s always challenging as a product team to actually have a shared understanding when [that understanding] wasn’t built up collectively, so by the time it hits a product pod or team, [the team members] don’t truly have a shared understanding.
And that’s part of what I mean by [researchers] facilitating that knowledge because it can be so disjointed when you’re working so quickly in delivery, but then strategic decisions take so much thought from so many people different people.
RS: I’m going to switch topics a little bit. Merit has users both in the US and Canada, although a lot of our user base skews US. You’re based in Toronto, and a fair amount of ink has been spilled on the differences between the Bay Area tech scene and the Canadian tech scene. Can you speak to this difference and how it’s played out for you?
NW: I can’t speak in depth, but what I can say is I definitely notice cultural differences in terms of how many products or tech startups we’re exposed to when it comes to hiring or even the attitudes of how to approach building a product.
Toronto is a very finance-heavy city, but it’s definitely growing tremendously in terms of tech. But culturally, from my observations, the Bay Area seems like this mature Wild West, in a way, compared to the broader American ecosystem. And then Toronto is like a younger version when we think of tech, because there’s still a lot of evangelism around digital transformation for a lot of these old companies, as opposed to a tech native company that’s starting from scratch and really building the DNA influenced by the Bay Area.
Toronto is a very finance-heavy city, but it’s definitely growing tremendously in terms of tech. But culturally, from my observations, the Bay Area seems like this mature Wild West…Toronto is like a younger version when we think of tech, because there’s still a lot of evangelism around digital transformation for these old companies.
RS: Do you think that that has an impact on folks in Toronto, who are first starting out their tech careers versus someone in San Francisco or New York or Austin starting their tech career?
NW: I definitely do. I think there are a few things. First is salary expectations. It’s not really a secret how there’s a big pay disparity [between the United States and Canada]. I think that influences when people get into the industry in Canada what their expectations are or should be. I think it can be tough when somebody new to the industry understands what their value is, but if they’re reading certain articles influenced by the Bay Area, you might have to set your expectations appropriately for the local market so you can actually build those skills and maybe make that leap to a bigger company that pays that [higher] salary.
The other impact is more established companies or industries have very, very, very established ways of working. If those are the dominant companies that are hiring but are in their tech transformation, they also might not have the ways of working, or models, that are consistent with how it might be done in the Bay Area or Austin.
And a lot of times those differences don’t matter too much in practice, but you have to really be aware of them, especially if you’re pitching yourself to be hired by a company up your career ladder. There are very well established terms like Agile, but there are obviously companies who aren’t using Agile or are using Waterfall, and that’s where a lot of this digital transformation talk comes from.
So really understand how your strengths will still apply and how you still delivered value can be important, as opposed to just repeating exactly what you did, under a certain way of working, model, or hierarchy. That can be a little bit intimidating sometimes, but as long as you’re aware of that, you can easily make that case. I don’t think it’s a barrier. I think it’s just something that newcomers might not completely understand when they think of tech.
RS: I’m really glad you brought that up because my next question was going to be about your experience at CIBC. What is it like to be in design, and in a technology-focused role, at a large corporate environment like a bank? What was that like for you as you were growing your career?
It was very easy for me to read articles and the best takes from blogs, but it was difficult for me to understand how it actually applied to myself.
NW: It was actually, to be frank, a challenge, especially in a field that was establishing itself and building credibility. It was very easy for me to read articles and the best takes from people who are writing blogs, but it was difficult for me to understand how it actually applied to myself. I had these misconceptions about how the world works. And you might think that things aren’t being done correctly and should be done another way. But when you think of a big corporation like that, there’s a lot of change that has to happen before it begins to look like the most contemporary company or what you’re reading in the blogs. Going through that experience definitely taught me a lot about how big corporations worked and how slow it can feel.
But I think it’s really important to have the right level of focus, because you can always think of how this is different than what you are aspiring to be, if you don’t want to be in that big corporation or if there is a problem. But there are still pockets within the company that were doing a lot of good work, and we were working in ways that were paving the way to keep changing the way the company works more broadly.
Working in those environments can be challenging if you’re comparing yourself to others or when you have bigger, large aspirations. That was the biggest lesson I learned there—keeping that perspective.
As I’ve evolved my career, the fundamental people challenges are very, very much the same, at the core, regardless of that zeitgeist. We’re all still a bunch of people making decisions and building products.
RS: It’s also fascinating to hear because I’ve always worked at startups; I’ve never worked in a large corporate environment. It’s a great insight to say that those two things are going to be different, that what you read on all of the big product and design blogs is really just the zeitgeist of what you come across in tech news versus the reality of being in a large corporate environment.
NW: One thing to add is that as I’ve evolved my career, the fundamental people challenges are very much the same, at the core, regardless of that zeitgeist. We’re all still a bunch of people making decisions and building products. There are always transferable skills, always lessons that you can learn, no matter where you are.
RS: I want to say, “Truer words never spoken.” People are people no matter where you go. My last question is, did you always know you wanted to be in the design field? I know you’re a UX researcher now, but did you always know that that was the area you wanted to go into, and do you feel like your experience in undergrad helped launch you into your career?
NW: I always knew I wanted to be in something “design-y” or “make-y,” so it could have been a developer role where you’re actually building that product. I always knew I wanted to basically create something. In terms of my undergrad experience, I think it did help a lot; I went to [the University of] Waterloo, and it had a lot of company co-ops. It helped get that perspective of different opportunities out there.
And that’s really how I discovered UX. It was at a time where I was like, “Is this web design?” I don’t think anybody really says “web design” anymore. It’s like UX design. And it wasn’t without that chance experience that I really found a career path. Because web design has a certain connotation, and, the reframing from web to UX, that opened up a whole new world for me.
Because I have a psychology degree, it provided me a framework for how to approach problems that I don’t think I would necessarily have without that academic framing for how to approach a research question. So I definitely do think that undergrad did help prepare me for my career.
There are always transferable skills, always lessons that you can learn, no matter where you are.