There was a point at a previous role where I was feeling frustrated by how little real Design I felt was happening at my work. I felt that the focus was too much on solutions, and too little on understanding the problem, with input from users.
I spoke to a design mentor about this, and he drew a long line on the whiteboard – it was the spectrum of approaches to design. I've since tweaked the spectrum, but the idea remains the same. The spectrum of design work ranges from graphic and UI design on one end; to UX research and participatory design on the other.
I love looking at the digital technology progress as a parallel here. On the one end, there is graphic design, the oldest on the spectrum. As digital technology swept through the world, business cards got replaced with websites, and graphic designers have shifted from graphic to UI design. Similarly, as computer power and internet speed increased, videos started replacing images, and similarly flat UI design transitioned towards motion and interaction.
Somewhere along the spectrum, the designer starts thinking about not only an interface as an output of design work, but an experience as a solution to a problem. This is where UX work blends in and out of UI work, and is often conflated in a generic UX/UI label.
Going further along the thinking approaches, the UI output in itself becomes less of a focus, making way for the business value the design process. Strategic UX (see book and summary), for example, overlaps a lot with Product Management, by weaving in business strategy and innovation into the design's work.
Around the time where marketing pushed for concepts like omni-channel, design disciplines started embracing design across touch-points and mediums. Customer experience (CX), for example, advocated to focus on the customer rather than the product. I would argue a lot of this thinking is taken for granted these days. As the approaches evolved, the design mediums became increasingly removed from their common physical and visual manifestation. While few designers call themselves service designers, the reality of many products has evolved quite a bit as well. The classic example is the iTunes and iPod service-product hybrid, though launched in 2001 it's far from being novel today.
The intro chapter in the book This is service design doing points out that "it doesn't matter what you call it. It matters that you do it." (32), and you'll notice the toolkits and methodologies mentioned in the book have a huge overlap with those traditionally associated with UX research (UXR). Pure UX researcher role would typically not create output like mocks and prototypes, but they will have a very thorough understanding of the problem and thus are very well positioned to solve it too.
More recently, a pattern has been emerging. The more designers try to tackle large and complex problems, the more they need to have user take the centre stage. It is largely a process of giving up power as designer, and ultimately not doing the "design" work at all.
Generative research "is an approach to bring the people we serve through design directly into the design process to ensure that we can meet their needs and dreams for the future" (see book). Many of such approches thing of the "designer as facilitator".
Facilitating the design process still give designers an unbalanced amount of power compared to the users or community members using the product or service. Pushing further the idea of giving up power as a designer, the process gives more and more power to these voices. I highly recommend listening to this Service Design Show podcast episode with Victor Udoewa, where he offer a refreshingly radical way to think about participatory design and research approaches.
Where is your work/company on the design spectrum?
I would argue that the UI end of the spectrum is the most recognizable type of work for designers. It is easier to get hired for that kind of work, because it is easier for a company to monetize that work (i.e. mocks and prototypes, as opposed to research and understanding of a problem). I would argue that the skills at the research/participative design end are crucial for tackling large and complex problems, but it's much harder to find companies that do that work (#capitalism).
Where do _you_ want to be on the design spectrum?
Individuals will have preferences on where they land on the spectrum, but designers are needed at each point in the spectrum. What is important however, is to realize that there is a spectrum and ask oneself if this is the type of work you believe in and want to be doing.
If your design approach doesn't match the approach your company/employer takes, it will take hard work to seek that kind of organizational change... or it simply might not be the right fit. Keeping that in mind, don't give up hope on doing the right things for the right reasons, and investing your life's work into things that matter.