UX Generalists or Specialists?

Practical Usability

Moving toward a more usable world

A column by Jim Ross
September 7, 2015

This is a question that every UX professional faces at some point: is it better to be a UX generalist—for example, practicing both user research and UX design—or is it better to specialize—perhaps in a specific domain? Companies often question whether a team of UX generalists or a mix of specialists is best.

I might be the ideal person to answer this question. Over the last 15 years, I’ve had the unusual experience of starting out as a UX design generalist, becoming a user research specialist, and again becoming a UX design generalist. In this column, I’ll discuss the advantages and disadvantages of generalization and specialization for UX professionals and the companies that hire them.

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UX Generalists

Many companies combine user research and design into a generalist, UX designer role. This role is usually responsible for a combination of the following activities:

  • user research
  • interaction design
  • information architecture
  • usability testing
  • visual design—sometimes
  • front-end development—more rarely

Does it make sense for one person to handle both user research and design? Let’s look at the advantages and disadvantages of generalization for both generalists and the companies that employ them.

Advantages to Generalists

As a UX generalist, you’ll experience the following advantages:

  • You gain more experience. As generalists, new UX professionals, who are just starting out in their UX careers, have the opportunity to gain a lot of experience in both user research and design.
  • You have more career opportunities. Because many companies combine user research and design into a generalist position, there are far more job opportunities open to generalists than to specialists. So generalists have more career options and mobility.
  • You experience more variety. Generalists experience a wider variety of activities. When user research begins to get boring and repetitive, they can move on to design. As multiple wireframe iterations begin to get tedious, they can move on to usability testing.
  • You experience the user research firsthand. While specialist designers may or may not observe all the user research and usability testing sessions, generalists conduct the user research and usability testing themselves. Through their firsthand involvement in the research, they can internalize the findings more deeply and then are better able to apply that knowledge to their designs.
  • It’s easy to become a specialist later. It’s far easier for a generalist to become a specialist than it is for a specialist to become a generalist. Generalists can choose to specialize in one of their areas of expertise, but specialists usually lack experience in one or more of the tasks that generalists must perform.

Disadvantages for Generalists

However, there are also some disadvantages to being a generalist:

  • You gain less in-depth experience. As the old phrase “jack of all trades, master of none” implies, generalists aren’t able to get as much detailed experience as specialists do, in either user research or design.
  • Your generalist role may focus mostly on design with very little research. Unfortunately, many companies combine user research and design into the same role because they don’t do much user research or usability testing anyway. On the other hand, companies that hire specialists in user research usually do so because they place a high value on user research and usability testing. So they spend more money and time on those activities.
  • You can be very busy. It’s a lot of work for one person to do all of the user research, design, and usability testing on a project. Plus, these activities often work best when they overlap. For example, in preparing for usability testing, a specialist designer could work on the prototype, while a specialist user researcher recruits participants and creates the discussion guide. It’s difficult for a generalist to take on all of these activities without a project’s taking longer so that generalist can avoid doing those activities in parallel.
  • You may have to test your own designs. Generalist designers may have to conduct usability testing on their own designs. Because of potential or perceived bias, it’s not ideal for designers to test their own designs.
  • There is more career competition. Although there are more generalist UX designer positions out there, more people are competing for the same jobs. There are fewer positions for specialists, but highly experienced specialists are rarer and tend to receive higher salaries.

Advantages of UX Generalists to Companies

For companies, is it better to have a team of UX generalists or specialists? First, let’s look at the advantages of hiring UX generalists:

  • You need fewer employees. One UX generalist can perform all of the user research and design activities on a project, instead of having two specialists—a user researcher and a designer—being responsible for certain activities. Even if you don’t want to have designers testing their own designs, you can bring in generalists from other projects to do the usability testing at some point during a project.
  • You can assign generalists to any type of project. A staff of generalists is more flexible than one comprising specialists, because you can assign any UX team member to user research projects, to design projects, and to projects that involve both research and design.
  • User research and design are not siloed. Because the same person does the user research and the design, there’s no handoff of knowledge between the researcher and the designer. This can shorten a project’s schedule and minimize the need to create time-consuming deliverables.
  • It’s easier to find generalists. There are more generalists than specialists, so they are easier to find and hire.

Disadvantages of UX Generalists for Companies

However, there are some disadvantages to hiring an entire team of UX generalists:

  • It’s hard to find people who are good at both user research and design. It’s difficult to find people who are both great designers and great user researchers. Design and user research skills are independent of one another. As an employer, you either have to try to find those rare people who can perform both roles very well, or you have to compromise on either the quality of design skills or user-research skills. Most companies end up compromising on user-research skills because they’re less valued and more difficult to evaluate than design skills.
  • Projects can take longer. When one person performs both user research and design activities, those tasks can’t proceed in parallel, saving time, as they could with both a user researcher and a designer. For example, in preparing for usability testing, a researcher could recruit participants and create the discussion guide, while the designer creates the prototype.
  • Designers conduct usability testing on their own designs. Even with the best intentions, people testing their own designs have a conflict of interest: a bias in what they observe, the conclusions they form, and the recommendations they make. In addition, participants are often uncomfortable criticizing a design when they know they’re talking to the person who designed it.

UX Specialists

Fewer companies separate user research and design into distinct specialties. Specialists are more common in larger companies that have a large UX team and can afford specialization.

There are many different job titles and specialties in User Experience, but the two main activities are user research and design. Of course, we could break design down further into a variety of sub-specialties such as information architecture, interaction design, and visual design. However, most often a UX design position combines two or more of these roles. Much more rarely, UX teams break up user research between people who conduct only usability testing or only up-front user research.

Advantages to Specialists

There are some advantages to being a UX specialist:

  • You gain a lot of in-depth experience in your specialty. By focusing all of your time on either user research or design, you gain in-depth experience in one area. You’re able to focus on what interests you most.
  • You get to work on the best projects for your specialty. Companies that choose to hire specialists are usually those that value both user research and design, and they tend to spend time and money on both of those activities. Companies with dedicated user researchers tend to allocate more time for research and trust researchers to innovate new activities. Consulting companies with specialist researchers tend to place a high value on user research. This attracts clients who also value and want to include user research on their projects.
  • You have more time to focus on your specialty. Instead of being overburdened and stretching yourself too thin by trying to perform all of the activities of both user research and design, you’ll have more time to focus on your specialty.
  • You become a rare and highly valued UX professional. As you gain more experience, you’ll become an increasingly rare and more highly valued UX professional. Although there are fewer specialist positions available, you’ll have much less competition for them. Plus, you can command a higher salary.

Disadvantages for Specialists

As you would expect, there are also several disadvantages to being a specialist:

  • You experience less variety. Although you can become an expert in your specialty area, you won’t gain the wide variety of experience that a generalist does.
  • Your role can seem limiting. As a specialist, your role is limited to your specialty. That’s fine if that’s what you want, but it may prevent you from experiencing other activities and growing your skills in other areas. For example, as a researcher, you may have some great design ideas, but people may not take them seriously if you’re not a designer.
  • You have fewer career opportunities. Specialization can make it difficult for you to find another job. Far fewer companies focus on hiring specialists than have UX generalist positions.
  • It’s difficult to transition from being a specialist to a generalist. It’s easy for generalists to become specialists in one of the areas in which they already practice. However, it’s very difficult for specialists to become generalists because they lack recent experience in one or more of the activities that being a generalist requires.

Advantages of UX Specialists to Companies

Why would companies hire specialist designers and user researchers? There are several advantages to hiring specialists:

  • You can hire the best designers and the best user researchers. Instead of trying to find the few people who are extremely good at both user research and design, you can focus on hiring the best researchers and the best designers. You don’t have to settle for a great designer who can also do user research fairly well, if need be. And you don’t need to settle for a great researcher who is pretty good at design.
  • You can let people focus on what they do best. You can have the best designers focus on designing, instead of their also having to handle research activities. You can have the best user researchers focus on conducting research, instead of trying to fit research activities in between their design activities. This doesn’t mean that specialist designers and user researchers should work separately. In an ideal situation, they work closely together, but each handles the details of his or her own specialty.
  • You get the benefit of experts collaborating. Being a single UX generalist on a project can be a lonely job. On projects with a specialist user researcher and a specialist designer, you get the benefit of having two experts working together and collaborating on research and design. Each one leads their part of the project, but the two work together, combining their expertise, which often leads to better results than with a single generalist.
  • Projects are quicker and more efficient. Specialization can be the most efficient way to divide up the UX work on a project. A separate user researcher and designer can work on activities concurrently, saving time.
  • Designers do not test their own designs. Specialization prevents the conflict of interest that occurs when designers conduct usability testing on their own designs.

Disadvantages of UX Specialists for Companies

For companies, there can be several disadvantages to hiring UX specialists:

  • You need more employees. Instead of hiring one generalist, you’ll need a user researcher and a designer for each project. However, this doesn’t mean that you’ll have to double the number of employees on the UX team. Each person can work on more than one project.
  • You have less flexibility when assigning specialists to projects. With generalists, a company can easily assign any UX professional to any user research or design project. But with specialists, they can only assign designers to design projects and researchers to research projects. For example, if a company went through a period during which they needed more researchers and had less design work, they couldn’t assign a specialist designer to a research project.
  • Specialization can lead to silos. If you’re not careful, specialization can create an artificial barrier between user research and design. In the worst cases, these specialties can develop into silos, with researchers and designers focusing only on their part of the project and throwing their deliverables over the wall to the other group, which then begins their part of the process, without much collaboration.
  • Specialization can limit employees’ opportunities. Specialization can drive away potential employees who enjoy being generalists. Specialization limits opportunities for people who are just beginning in the field of User Experience and haven’t yet realized what they want to focus on.
  • Specialization can lead to typecasting. Sometimes companies take specialization too far, which leads to typecasting within a corporate culture. Such cultures harbor stereotypes, assuming that user researchers have no design skills and designers don’t have the ability to do research. At the extreme, there may also be typecasting within the research and design groups. For example, a researcher who gets assigned to too many usability testing projects may gain an unwanted reputation as the usability testing guy. Or a company may label a designer as a visual designer, assuming she has no idea of how to do interaction design or vice versa. Employees often become dissatisfied with such stereotypes because they limit their growth.

My Advice

As someone who has gone from generalist to specialist and back to generalist, I can provide some advice for both UX professionals and the companies that are considering hiring UX generalists or specialists.

Advice for UX Professionals

For UX professionals, especially those just starting out in the field, I’ll provide the following advice:

  • Begin your career as a UX generalist. This will let you learn and gain experience in both user research and design. If you later decide you want to specialize, you’ll be able to make a well-informed decision.
  • Think carefully before becoming a specialist. Because it’s difficult to transition back to being a generalist, make sure you’ve carefully considered whether you should become a specialist. It’s especially difficult for a user-research specialist to become a generalist UX designer. So be sure that’s what you want to do.
  • If you are a specialist, be sure your career remains mobile. Since there are fewer jobs for specialists, it’s best to remain mobile, with the ability to relocate easily to another city to accept another job. For example, in most U.S. cities, there may be only two or three companies that hire user-research specialists, so specializing in research may limit your options.
  • Get a job in an area with a lot of specialist positions. If you want to avoid having to relocate, get a job in a city with a large technology industry. Major technology companies, in areas such as Silicon Valley, are most likely to hire specialists. You’ll have more opportunities and career mobility in such locations.
  • Get a job at a company that encourages collaboration between specialties. When you’re considering a specialist position, find out how much collaboration there is between specialties. Do the user researchers and designers work closely together and collaborate on research and design? Avoid companies where researchers and designers work separately, handing off deliverables to each other. Look for cultures in which specialists respect each other’s opinions.
  • Be careful of being typecast. One of the dangers of gaining fame as an expert in a specific specialty or domain is people beginning to think you don’t have any talent for or knowledge of other specialties or domains. Avoid this happening to you by working in a company that respects differences and whose definitions of specialties are less strict, so specialties share more skills.

Advice for Companies

For companies hiring UX professionals, I’ll provide the following advice:

  • Start with generalists, then expand to specialists. If you’re just beginning to hire a few UX professionals or create a small team, start with generalists who have the skills to perform both user research and design. As your team grows, you’ll be able to afford more specialization.
  • Ensure that generalists are qualified. It may be hard to find people who are equally highly skilled in both user research and design, but don’t skimp on user research skills. Ensure that generalists have the right background—through education and experience—to do user research in addition to design.
  • Hire both generalists and specialists. You don’t have to limit the model for your UX team to hiring either generalists or specialists. A UX team can include both. Don’t turn down good user researchers or UX designers just because they don’t fit your generalist or specialist model.
  • Ensure collaboration between user research and design. To prevent silos, ensure that specialist researchers and designers work together throughout projects. Designers should have input to the research, attend research sessions, and help analyze the data. Researchers should collaborate with designers and provide input on the design.
  • Have generalists test each other’s designs. Instead of having generalists conduct usability testing on their own designs, bring outside generalists onto a project during usability-testing phases to test others’ designs. This lets you avoid problems of potential bias and saves time, because two different people can perform research and design tasks concurrently.
  • Prevent specialization from becoming limiting. Avoid imposing artificial limitations on specialists. Even if you have specialists, recognize that they may have additional skills and interests and allow them to experience activities outside their specialty. Enable designers and researchers to learn from each other and develop new skills, if they are interested in doing so.

Do What You Like

In an ideal situation, making a strict distinction between specialists and generalists is not necessary. UX design involves many different areas of expertise—user research, information architecture, interaction design, content strategy, visual design, usability testing, and UX strategy, to name a few. Most UX professionals have varying levels of knowledge, experience, interest, and talent in each of these areas. For companies, their most important task is finding people with the best combination of knowledge, skills, and talents to cover each aspect of UX design. For individual UX professionals, the challenge is to find a position that allows you to experience and practice whatever aspects of User Experience interest you most. Good luck in finding the best UX career for you! 

Principal UX Researcher at AnswerLab

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

Jim RossJim has spent most of the 21st Century researching and designing intuitive and satisfying user experiences. As a UX consultant, he has worked on Web sites, mobile apps, intranets, Web applications, software, and business applications for financial, pharmaceutical, medical, entertainment, retail, technology, and government clients. He has a Masters of Science degree in Human-Computer Interaction from DePaul University.  Read More

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