“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.