Specialists Versus Generalists: A False Dichotomy?
Published: February 9, 2009
In his recent blog post on UIE Brain Sparks, “Ideal UX Team Makeup: Specialists, Generalists, or Compartmentalists,” Jared Spool has revived his discussion of the merits of specialists versus generalists. He defines specialists and generalists as follows:
“Specialists are professionals who have the time, experience, and projects to allow them to go deep into a discipline such as information architecture or visual design.
“Because they can concentrate on the one discipline, they become very knowledgeable and experienced at solving the problems that crop up. Having a specialist on board is often very valuable, since they’ll know how to tackle the many subtleties that can make or break a project.
“Generalists are professionals whose time and projects demand they learn a broad variety of disciplines. It’s not unusual to find a generalist who daily switches between information architecture, usability research, interaction design, visual design, and even coding.
“Because they are constantly switching, they don’t have the advantage specialists have at gaining knowledge in a specific discipline. However, they do have the advantage that they often better understand the intersection between these disciplines. They are extremely valuable because they can see issues and details from multiple perspectives, bringing a broad view to the project.”—Jared Spool
While there are indeed some UX professionals who—by either personal inclination or circumstance—resemble the specialists and generalists Jared describes, in my opinion, the ideal employee to hire for your UX team is neither a specialist nor a generalist.
The ideal UX professional combines many of the best attributes of both specialists and generalists. At some point in his or her career, this person has specialized in one of the essential disciplines of user experience for an extended period of time and is an adept in that specialty. If this person has had a long career in user experience, he or she might even have focused on more than one UX specialty at different times. This ideal UX professional has also worked in contexts that required him or her to function as a generalist, so has broad knowledge of most UX disciplines and finely honed skills in many of them. Most importantly, this person can integrate diverse viewpoints and takes a holistic approach to solving problems.
In his The Ten Faces of Innovation, Tom Kelley describes such people as T-shaped individuals. “They enjoy a breadth of knowledge in many fields, but they also have depth in at least one area of expertise,” he says. “They defy simple categorization, but don’t let that bother you.” In the book’s conclusion, he goes on to say, “Show me a list of people who changed the world, and I’ll show you a group of people unconstrained by traditional roles.” Kelley considers “the idea of well-rounded, T-shaped people” to be “intrinsic to IDEO’s strategy for hiring and professional development. … We believe the future belongs to T-shaped people. And it’s not easy to replace a T-shaped person. The broader your talents, the more your ability lies in the overlaps between disciplines, the less likely you will find yourself outsourced.” He makes a powerful case for hiring T-shaped people to foster a culture of innovation.
As I’ve defined it in our UXmatters Glossary, “User experience design takes a holistic, multidisciplinary approach to the design of user interfaces for digital products. It integrates interaction design, industrial design, information architecture, visual interface design, user assistance design, and user-centered design, ensuring coherence and consistency across all of these design dimensions. User experience design defines a product’s form, behavior, and content.” Thus, a UX designer is, by definition, one example of a T-shaped person.
Bowing to Economic Realities
In small companies—particularly startups—UX teams are usually very small, comprising just a few people or perhaps even a single person. Out of economic necessity, such companies usually hire generalists—or better, T-shaped people—who can meet their various needs for UX design and user research.
In times of recession, when corporate budgets are tight and hiring options are limited, many fiscally responsible organizations turn to generalists or T-shaped people to ensure flexibility in their allocation of UX resources. So, there’s definitely an economic argument in favor of hiring generalists or T-shaped people, especially in the current economic climate.
However, while economic constraints are a key factor in the individual hiring decisions of a small company with very limited resources, a large corporation with deeper pockets should have more flexibility in deciding what kinds of people it will hire. It’s not just about cost. It’s about opportunity.
The Determining Factor in Hiring: Corporate Culture
Unfortunately, many large corporations enforce specialization in the roles they define for members of their UX teams. For example, some break down design into very narrow specialties—typically, interaction design, visual design, and content strategy, or UI text.
Ironically, some of the same large corporations who define specialized roles for designers require user researchers to do both generative user research and usability studies. So, UX professionals who would prefer to specialize in one or the other are often prevented from doing so.
Organizations should not require designers who have the depth and breadth of knowledge and experience to legitimately call themselves UX designers to specialize so narrowly. The best designers are unique individuals who bring diverse talents to their work—they’re T-shaped people. We should honor that individuality, not see designers as cogs in a machine. In my view, such rigidity in defining the roles of UX professionals is a mistake, and this inflexibility has many untoward consequences:
- Hiring only people who have very similar backgrounds, educations, and domain experience is not conducive to innovation. Cultures of innovation hire for diversity. An organization that doesn’t value the unique talents and perspectives of individuals is the antithesis of a culture of innovation. Don’t hire people who are just like you! Instead, look for opportunities to add new competencies and viewpoints to your team.
- Organizations who define roles inflexibly may lose the opportunity to hire the T-shaped people who would stimulate the innovation that is their lifeblood. Instead, do what you need to attract and create jobs for the best and brightest.
- UX professionals who are either forced to specialize when they don’t want to or prevented from specializing often become frustrated and look for more agreeable employment elsewhere—at great cost to the organizations they leave. Nurture your employees’ careers and give them opportunities that make them want to stay.
- UX professionals whose jobs lock them into one specialty are unable to maintain or advance their skills in other UX specialties, so staying in such a position for an extended period of time is a career-limiting move—particularly when there’s a trend toward hiring generalists, as in a recessionary economy. Give your people the opportunity to learn and grow.
- Individual contributors whose character and competencies make them better suited for individual contributor roles are sometimes forced into management—the refuge of many generalists. In a management role, being a generalist becomes a virtue rather than the handicap it is in an organization that defines UX roles narrowly.
In an organization that’s large enough to support specialists in the various UX disciplines, hiring some specialists, of course, represents an opportunity. Barring economic constraints on hiring them, any UX team can benefit from having a rock-star visual designer, a virtuoso interaction designer, a superlative information architect, a great writer of UI text, a code warrior, or an exceptionally perceptive user researcher. However, there’s no compelling reason to hire only specialists.
In my review of Jared Spool’s talk at the IA Summit in 2006, “We Are Not Alone: IA’s Role in the Optimal Design Team,” I included this slightly paraphrased quotation: “Specialists can exist only if there is high enough demand” for them in a regional marketplace. “Few design teams have enough demand to afford specialists. In very high-demand economies, only specialists can survive. Generalists serve lower-demand economies.” Demand “oscillates over time,” so “practitioners must be flexible as economic demands change.”
I don’t believe it is an essential truth that only specialists can survive in high-demand economies, though the hiring practices of some large corporations surely make things more difficult for generalists—and, more problematically, for the T-shaped people who have the potential to transform an organization.
There are some more natural dichotomies between certain UX specialties, for which it’s usually best to define specialized roles within an organization:
- design and usability—Ideally, to ensure objectivity, designers should not conduct usability testing on their own designs. Therefore, a division between design and usability roles is usually beneficial.
- design and front-end development—I am always amazed by how many companies still hire UI engineers to design as well a build their user interfaces. While there are a few brilliant developers who do both well, that’s the exceptional case rather than the rule. In general, designers do a better job of representing users’ wants, needs, and mindsets, and developers do a better job of writing the code that implements a user interface.
- individual contributor and UX leader—Management is itself a specialty. Though the best UX leaders are T-shaped people. They have broad competence and knowledge in UX design and research and deep management skills. They look at user experience holistically and understand the strategic role of UX within their organizations.
In addition to discussing specialization in particular aspects of user experience, Jared’s post also alludes to domain specialization. In my view, deep domain knowledge, while essential in a product manager, is not the primary criterion that should form the basis of a UX hiring decision. It’s usually a valuable asset, but there are also some positives that come from hiring T-shaped people who have experience outside your domain. The capabilities a T-shaped person with broad experience can bring to your UX team include
- the ability to see relationships between diverse ideas
- a knack for recognizing patterns and subtle differences
- outside-the-box thinking that lets a designer create an innovative solution that might not have occurred to someone with a domain-specific perspective
- objectivity that lets a user researcher without strong preconceptions understand what he or she observes in a different way and identify new business opportunities
- the ability to be what Tom Kelley calls a Cross-Pollinator, who “explores other industries and cultures, then translates those findings and revelations to fit the unique needs of your enterprise”
T-shaped individuals are naturally curious, continually growing and learning, and constantly seeking new challenges. These are the kinds of people you should want in your organization—regardless of whether they have expertise in your particular domain.
One of the advantages of a design studio like IDEO is the diversity of the projects it tackles. As Tom Kelley says, “There’s an old saying that a forty-year career is sometimes the same year repeated forty times. Not at IDEO, or at any other company with a culture of continuous learning. The broad range of our client work—spanning dozens of industries—means that we can cross-pollinate from one world to another.” Hire people who bring diversity and cross-pollination to your team.
Who Should You Hire in a Recession?
In a recession, you’ll need to get better results from fewer people, so you should hire the best, most productive people you can get to join your UX team, without being limited by corporate preconceptions about roles. Build a flexible team that lets you cover all of the demands your organization places upon it.
As Jared said in his blog post, “What makes an effective UX team is the completeness of the skillset across all the members. The roles of individuals are secondary—a team with generalists will always be more flexible than a team of specialists.”
So building a UX team should be more like finding all of the puzzle pieces you need to complete the picture that’s currently coming into clarity than hiring one more cog just like one you’re replacing. And depending on your needs, that team might comprise specialists, generalists, and T-shaped people.
In the software development sphere, many studies have shown that the best developers are 10X better and more productive than the average developer with the same amount of experience—or as developers commonly say, “an order of magnitude better.”
On his blog 10x Software Development, Steve McConnell—one of my favorite authors of books on the software development process—wrote, “This degree of variation isn’t unique to software. A study by Norm Augustine found that in a variety of professions—writing, football, invention, police work, and other occupations—the top 20 percent of the people produced about 50 percent of the output, whether the output is touchdowns, patents, solved cases, or software. When you think about it, this just makes sense. We’ve all known people who are exceptional students, exceptional athletes, exceptional artists, exceptional parents—these differences are just part of the human experience; why would we expect software development to be any different?”
As Jim Nieters points out in his UXmatters column, “Artists, Not Assholes,” the same is certainly true of the best UX professionals. “The reality is that artisans can add 10 times the value.” The artisans he describes are the 10X better, more productive people you should endeavor to hire. Often, these 10Xers are T-shaped people. Sometimes, they’re specialists.
McConnell goes on to say, “Software experts have long observed that team productivity varies about as much as individual productivity does—by an order of magnitude.” Well, that’s only natural. The more 10X people you hire, the greater the likelihood that you’ll have a 10X UX team. Though a smoothly functioning team with great synergy can be greater than the sum of its parts. And, unfortunately, a few of those assholes Jim warned us about in his column can prevent a team and even its 10Xers from fulfilling their potential, so it’s important to avoid such hiring mistakes—or acknowledge any hiring mistakes you’ve made and remedy them quickly.
My Ideal UX Team
So, what would my ideal UX team look like? My dream team would consist of both specialists and T-shaped individuals with knowledge and skills that are both broad and deep. A small, nimble 10X team might comprise the following:
- a bunch of T-shaped UX designers with great interaction design, information architecture, visual design, and writing skills in some combination
- a user assistance writer who could assist with UI text, if any of the designers lacked top-notch writing skills, and with usability testing—another kind of T-shaped person
- the following top-notch specialists:
- a user researcher or two
- a visual designer who would be responsible for standards and key visual elements
- front-end developers who would be responsible for implementing UX design specifications and doing any necessary prototyping
This illustrative example shows just one possible composition of a UX team, but outlines the scope of functions I believe rightly belong on a UX team and demonstrates a balance between specialists and T-shaped individuals.
Managing a Diverse Team
While there’s no compelling reason to favor specialists over T-shaped people—either when devising the structure of a UX team or in your hiring decisions—managing a diverse team has its challenges:
- Decisions about team composition and individual hiring decisions become more complex.
- Sometimes, people who are different from one another have difficulty trusting one another. Don’t do anything that might create an us-versus-them mentality—either between specialists and generalists or between people in different specialties. So, avoid favoring some with recognition that you deny others. Recognize the success of the team.
- Some people are naturally competitive. Ensure that your team members direct that competitive spirit toward your competitors in the marketplace, not toward one another. Work diligently to foster a culture of collaboration rather than competition.
- Ensure that everyone on your team gets a chance to shine and demonstrate their value to their peers.
- Establish forums where team members can share their ideas, their work, and their expertise.
- Encourage mentoring.
- Organize brainstorming sessions.
- Hold cross-functional design reviews.
- Do everything possible to encourage mutual understanding among people in different specialties.
- Judging the performance of individual contributors becomes more complicated when each individual has unique qualifications and is fulfilling a unique role.
How to Recognize T-Shaped People
While T-shaped people are exceptional people, so certainly don’t grow on trees, they’re easier to find than you might think if you know what you’re looking for. Unfortunately, too many hiring managers either don’t know to look for them or don’t recognize them when they see them. Here are some signs that you might be looking at a T-shaped person:
- T-shaped designers typically identify themselves as UX designers or UX architects rather than interaction designers, information architects, or visual designers. While their resumés may tout their interaction design, information architecture, visual design, or writing skills, they use words like holistic, integrated, coherent, and multidisciplinary to describe their approach to UX design.
- T-shaped people bring both depth of expertise in one or more UX disciplines and a broad understanding of other disciplines. Their resumés include a diverse array of experience that demonstrates the breadth of their skills, but also shows some deep dives into one or more specialties. From their resumés, you can’t identify a particular product domain in which they’ve specialized. You might even see a mix of consumer and enterprise experience; desktop, Web, and mobile experience. T-shaped people are forever seeking new challenges, and their previous employers have recognized their worthiness to meet those challenges by assigning them work in different specialties, on different kinds of products, and with greater responsibility.
- If your organization silos design specialties, after reading the resumés of T-shaped people, you’ll have a hard time figuring out where they’d fit. When you interview T-shaped people, they ask probing questions about how your UX team is structured and how the various roles interact. They’re having a hard time seeing where they’d fit within your organization, too.
- The portfolios of T-shaped designers back up their claims to diverse skills. You’ll see work that demonstrates high quality on all design dimensions. And when you ask T-shaped designers about their portfolios during interviews, they’ll communicate very clearly what their role was in creating the work and give credit to their peers where credit is due.
- T-shaped people enjoy sharing their knowledge—with their peers in UX, with UX team members in other specialties, with people in other disciplines on multidisciplinary product teams, and with business leaders. They’re effective mentors and evangelists of user experience.
- Hungry for knowledge, T-shaped people are always interested in learning new things—about new technologies, new techniques, other UX specialties; about the disciplines of their peers on product teams like product management, development, and user assistance; and about product domains and business strategy.
- T-shaped people dance to the beat of a different drummer. They defy categorization and chafe under constraints that would keep them confined within a narrow specialty. They can’t help thinking outside the box. They synthesize diverse ideas to come up with fresh approaches and innovative solutions to problems. In doing so, they add tremendous value to an organization. They’re worth their weight in gold.
- T-shaped people want to change the world and make it a better place. And they exude a strong belief in their ability to do just that. When they talk about innovation, it’s more than just a buzzword; it’s a passion.
T-shaped people possess most or even all of these characteristics. It’s the combination of a T-shaped individual’s innate nature and talents along with his or her diverse experience that forges the strengths that make that individual so uniquely valuable.
To ensure you build the most effective UX team possible, it’s important to keep an open mind and be flexible in your hiring decisions. Hiring 10X, T-shaped people will make your business more successful, so you’ll be amply rewarded for handling the complexity of managing a diverse team. Build a team comprising individuals who possess the competencies that meet your organization’s needs, and hire as many T-shaped people as you can find.
Thanks to Jim Nieters for being a sounding board for these ideas and encouraging me to capture them in this article.
Gabriel-Petit, Pabini. “My IA Summit 2006 Experience: Part 2: The Conference: Day 1.” UXmatters, April 14, 2006. Retrieved February 5, 2009.
Kelley, Tom. The Ten Faces of Innovation. New York: Currency Doubleday, 2005.
McConnell, Steve. “Productivity Variations Among Software Developers and Teams: The Origin of ‘10x’.” 10x Software Development, March 27, 2008, Retrieved February 5, 2009.
Nieters, Jim. “Artists, Not Assholes.” UXmatters, November 3, 2008. Retrieved February 5, 2009.
Spool, Jared M. “Ideal UX Team Makeup: Specialists, Generalists, or Compartmentalists.” UIE Brain Sparks, November 17, 2008. Retrieved February 5, 2009.