Unicorns, Foxes, and Hedgehogs: Why You Need Diversity on Your UX Team

October 5, 2015

Many of us have seen or heard the labels UX Unicorn or UX generalist—whether in the design community or LinkedIn job postings. UX Unicorns belong to the rare breed of UX professionals who can do it all without flinching and speak about it at the next big conference, inspiring us with their incredible wit and tact. There have been arguments for and against their existence, hunting expeditions in search of such famed talent, and blog posts about how to become a UX Unicorn yourself.

However, I believe there are two other breeds of UX professionals who are just as valuable. Meet the Fox and the Hedgehog. Western society has passed on these archetypes from Archilochus of Paros, a Greek lyric poet who, loosely translated, wrote:

“Some people do more with one piece of astuteness than others with their various schemes. The fox protects itself against the hunters by many and various wiles, and yet is often caught. The echinus … by its one skill alone is safe from the bites of dogs; it rolls itself up with its spines into a ball, and cannot be snapped up with a bite from any side.”

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There has been some confusion and debate about what this quotation means and whether Foxes and Hedgehogs are even true archetypes or cognitive styles. But let’s just run with the concept for a moment and pretend the Fox and the Hedgehog exist in the world of User Experience. I’ll describe some key attributes of UX Foxes and UX Hedgehogs that may make them unique and important.

UX Foxes

UX Foxes are people who can think laterally and apply insights from several fields. They may have a background in psychology, business, or English literature or have taken a non-traditional path into the UX design community. We sometimes find UX Foxes tucked away in corporate environments—where they have held various roles in communications, marketing, or IT departments. Or they may have done a solid amount of freelance consulting or work in an agency setting where they’ve applied their craft in different verticals and worn several different hats in the process.

They bring with them a diverse set of experiences and an ability to easily shift their thinking and adapt to new constraints. They’re more comfortable with—and even embrace—uncertainty. They approach problems and unfamiliar terrain with curiosity and creativity. People with this style bring a lot to the table when solving a problem requires research—perhaps by doing a contextual inquiry—or scoping information architecture and interaction design.

UX Hedgehogs

UX Hedgehogs are the specialists who have honed their craft and mastered a domain through years of experience. Think of those people who fit the model of the 10,000-hour rule. Some UX Hedgehogs, having gained too much knowledge in a single discipline or domain over time, are handicapped by having become locked into their own discipline or one business domain. They can be so eager for a resolution that it’s difficult for them to handle uncertainty, but they’re great at solving one set of problems or delivering one set of outcomes in a pinch—for example, crafting wireframes, developing a visual identity, or telling stories. Many are also great at specific practice areas such as usability testing or visual design.

Foxes and Hedgehogs

In Present Shock, Douglas Rushkoff uses an example from the real world to illustrate each mindset:

“In evaluating the intelligence failures surrounding the U.S. overthrow of Iraq, University of Pennsylvania psychologist and decision theorist Philip Tetlock concluded that people with more wide-ranging and less specific interests are better at predicting the future than experts in the very fields being studied.

“Using Isaiah Berlin’s prototypes of the fox and the hedgehog, Tetlock studied hundreds of different decisions and determined that foxes—people with wider and less specific interests—saw patterns more accurately than hedgehogs, who used their knowledge of history and their prior experiences to predict future outcomes. Hedgehogs, Tetlock learned, were too eager for closure to be able to sit with the uncertainty of not knowing. They attempted to use their fixed ideas to determine where things were going.

“Foxes had less at stake in conventional wisdom, so they were much more likely to use probability in making their assessments. While hedgehogs were locked into their own disciplines, foxes could think laterally, applying the insights from one field to another. Knowledge had handicapped the hedgehogs, while the wide-ranging curiosity of the foxes gave them the edge.”

In this example, it sounds like Foxes win—and indeed, there’s something to be said for their ability to adapt and leverage a wider view of the world in different situations. Adapting to diverse challenges is one of the most important aspects of our work in the design world and helps us to solve problems for people on a daily basis.

If you’re more inclined to see the world as a Hedgehog would, there’s a lesson for you to learn from this. Having deep knowledge in one field is valuable, but it can also handicap you if you let your belief in being an expert in your field limit your potential. As a Hedgehog, it would be healthy for you to explore the world with more curiosity and push yourself to embrace risks, challenges, and new experiences.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”—Shunryu Suzuki

The Value of Having Both Foxes and Hedgehogs on Your Team

But let’s consider another way of looking at the nature of both of these UX creatures—a way that lets us clearly perceive that one isn’t better than the other. What if these archetypes simply have different perspectives—and sometimes one or the other is more applicable to a particular situation or challenge at hand?

Rather than getting locked into just one of these mindsets, there’s something we can learn from both views of the world. Sometimes we need someone who can quickly switch mindsets to help break us out of our limited view of a problem and synthesize insightful solutions from other disciplines. Yet, at other times, we really need the deep experience of someone who can keep us focused on a challenge or a proven process that works. It’s incredible to see someone at work who has honed their craft and polished their process, making it look almost effortless.

I believe it’s best to have both UX Foxes and UX Hedgehogs on your team. While there are some who can switch between the mindset of a Fox and a Hedgehog when necessary, having both of these perspectives and approaches on your team may offer the best blend to set your work—and your clients—up for success. So, hire both UX Foxes and UX Hedgehogs. And, of course, it doesn’t hurt to have a Unicorn, too, if you can lure one in. Just watch out for the horn. 

Designer at Transamerica

Experience Design Architect at Minutiae UX

Denver, Colorado, USA

Jeremy WiltA true veteran of human-centered design, interaction design, and design research, with a decade of experience, Jeremy is responsible for facilitating, generating, and executing great experiences for clients and their customers. Acting as both a coach and mentor, Jeremy leads the EffectiveUI internal team while advocating for clients’ needs. Jeremy’s expertise lies in experience strategy and design, interaction design, and contextual inquiry. Jeremy hates the word users and brings a passionate and empathetic approach to his work. He has helped EffectiveUI to deliver exceptional experiences to clients that include The Hershey Company, Aetna, Rambus, TIAA-CREF, Scottrade, and Comcast.  Read More

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