Confessions of an Ex-Unicorn

December 7, 2015

Most of us in the world of User Experience have heard of the magical UX Unicorn—the generalist who is able to master the entire UX spectrum and perform every specialty with ease, even if that sometimes presents conflicts of interest. This means a single person who is an expert in interaction design, visual design, content strategy, information architecture, usability, user research, and coding.

Unsurprisingly, companies love the idea of hiring one person cover do so many tasks. In fact, many expect that they can hire UX Unicorns by the dozen. Nearly every UX job description seems to include everything from usability testing to JavaScript. Many of us have felt the pressure to become a UX Unicorn. Review analytics! Design a workflow! Learn to code!

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But becoming a UX Unicorn is not the right path for all of us. Many of the UX professionals who are attempting to be UX Unicorns are finding themselves either unhappy in their process, unsatisfied in their role as a UX Unicorn, unqualified to move forward, or unsure of how to grow their career.

While being a UX Unicorn does have some benefits, it’s not the right fit for everyone or every situation. So let’s discuss the pros and cons of this role and consider other paths to success in the field of User Experience.

Pros to Being a UX Unicorn

There are definitely situations where UX Unicorns make sense. As expected, employers love the idea of being able to hire individuals with a great breadth of knowledge in the various UX disciplines. It’s much cheaper to hire one person to cover all those different roles than to hire a team of specialists.

Becoming a generalist can have benefits for you professionally, especially for a more junior UX professional. You get to experiment with different roles, learn many tools and techniques, and be involved in every step of the process to ensure your ideas are implemented.

Being a UX Unicorn enables you to discover the niches of User Experience that you’re most passionate about. Knowledge in each of these areas helps you understand the context of the entire user-centered design process. Plus, having a wide breadth of experience lets you grow your career in many directions.

Cons to Being a UX Unicorn

But being a UX Unicorn is not always all rainbows and glitter for those in this role. User Experience is meant to be a team sport. We all do our best work when we have someone to bounce ideas off of, can draw on the perspectives and strengths of others, and can test and design without bias, which is exceptionally difficult if you are responsible for the entire UX process. UX Unicorns are often overworked. When their companies ask them to take on several different roles, it’s hard to focus and excel at any one part of the job.

If you do find one specialty you’re especially passionate about, the chances that you’ll get to do it on a regular basis decrease when you’re asked to take on more roles. In contrast, you might discover that there is a part of User Experience you don’t like so much or aren’t so good at. For instance, you might loathe creating design patterns in HTML/CSS, but love analyzing user surveys, so you’d get burnt out if you had to prototype comp after comp. It’s no surprise that being a UX Unicorn can be tough work.

Perhaps more surprisingly, it’s not always great to employ—or attempt to employ—UX Unicorns. First of all, true UX Unicorns are incredibly rare. But many people slap a horn on their horse of a resume, claim to be a UX Unicorn, and hope for the best. The result? Companies often discover that the individuals accepting UX Unicorn roles aren’t actually capable of excelling at the many different kinds of work they need them to do. Such people typically either completely exhaust themselves trying to get up to speed on all the necessary tasks or the quality of their work falls short.

People who actually are fantastic UX Unicorns may bring a bit of ego along with their skillset, which can make them difficult to work with. UX Unicorns’ wide breadth of capabilities also means companies are likely to call upon them at all hours, to do all kinds of tasks, so burnout is a real or even a likely possibility. For employers, having burned-out employees means low morale, a low likelihood of their producing their best work, and a high potential for turnover.

In truth, whether it makes more sense to have more general roles that approach the UX Unicorn ideal or more specialized roles depends on the team and the size of the company. Smaller companies and some agencies tend to have lower budgets and a limited amount of niche work, so they are likely to need people who are strong in a number of areas rather than people who are dedicated to particular specialties. Larger corporations tend to have both the budget and sufficient work to support specialized roles such as designated user researchers or information architects.

If you choose to go the consulting route, you can choose basically any combination of specialties you want, as long as you’re able to sell your skillset. You could also decide to pursue the path of leadership, in which it’s helpful to have, not only strong management and soft skills, but also broad knowledge of User Experience that you can draw on in providing the vision for a multidisciplinary UX team.

Tips for a Successful Career in User Experience

In many ways, the path to success in User Experience depends on what role you choose to play—whether UX Unicorn or specialist. Next, we’ll provide some tips that can help both UX Unicorns or specialists to be successful. But regardless of the path you choose in User Experience, there are also some tips for success that apply to everyone.

Tips for UX Unicorns

Should you decide to pursue the path of the UX Unicorn, we have a few suggestions for you:

  1. Make friends with other UX Unicorns outside of work. It can be helpful to have a network of external UX professionals with whom you can share ideas, compare the obstacles you encounter, and find solutions to help you overcome similar problems.
  2. Recognize your areas of weakness and ask for help. Take the time to examine your strengths and weaknesses. Be realistic about the areas in which you can benefit from another’s expertise, and don’t be afraid to ask other people in your organization or network for help.
  3. Be aware of overcommitment and know your limitations. As you reflect on your shortcomings, you also need to be honest about your ability to deliver. Set appropriate expectations with the teams you’re working with, so they’ll be aware of what it is reasonable to expect. Don’t be afraid to push back on deadlines. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither should your product.

Tips for Specialists

Specialists are likely to benefit from doing the following:

  1. Understand and evangelize the power of a diverse, cross-functional UX team. Each individual’s unique experiences and strengths provide valuable perspectives on every project. Help ensure that non-UX teams truly understand the value of each UX discipline and how they work together. Advocate for utilizing your other team members’ niche specialties when appropriate to create the best possible outcomes.
  2. Rely on the strengths of your team members. Rather than trying to take on the entire spectrum of UX work, identify those people on your team who are most experienced in the areas in which you’re weakest and collaborate with them.
  3. Don’t beat yourself up, and know your worth. Appreciate the value that you bring to your team and don’t attempt to take on too many roles. Rest assured that all of the components of User Experience are equally important—and most powerful when they come together.

Tips For Everyone’s Success

No matter what role you play in User Experience, you can benefit from these tips:

  1. Make friends with dragons, developers, product managers, and other stakeholders. Make alliances with others and help them understand the role they play in creating the users’ experience. Be sure to include others in your process, so everyone is working toward the same goals. If you feel alone in your organization, find others in your community to provide perspective and support.
  2. Manage your company’s expectations. Be explicit about your own and your team’s abilities and contributions. Identify what else is necessary for your organization’s success. If you’re in a situation that requires unicorn-level skill diversity—for example, working in a smaller company—make sure you communicate your time constraints. If you are part of a larger corporation that can afford specialists, identify the specific disciplines your team needs. Ensure that job descriptions don’t become the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink sorts of UX Unicorn roles we all laugh at.
  3. Don’t become a prefabricated designer. Keep in mind that UX professionals come in all shapes and sizes. You aren’t beholden to take whatever path your current company has set forth. You can be unique and create a career path that utilizes your strengths and makes you happy.

Regardless of what path you choose to pursue as a UX professional, everyone can benefit from creating strong relationships with their colleagues and business partners. Each of us comes with a different set of experiences and has different goals. Our diversity helps us to understand our various users. The good news is that there is plenty of demand for all kinds of roles in User Experience, and that trend seems only to be growing. 

Senior Director, Global Design & UX, at MaxPoint

Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, USA

Rachel DanielRachel has been involved in the UX realm for more than a decade and is a self-proclaimed Ex-Unicorn. She’s covered everything from visual design to user research, interaction design to coding, and usability testing to prototyping. Over her long career, Rachel has worked at companies large and small, producing award-winning designs, growing collaborative teams, providing ongoing training, and crafting user experiences for a variety of products and applications. She has been influential in the UX community through sharing her knowledge at both international and local conferences, including UX Scotland, Interaction South America, Big Design, The UX Lab NYC, and Ladies That UX. When not producing high-caliber designs or mentoring team members, Rachel looks for every opportunity to travel the world.  Read More

President and Principal Consultant, Stockwell Strategy

Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, USA

Amanda StockwellAmanda is an experienced user experience research and strategy consultant. For the last decade, she has focused on finding innovative ways to understand users and embedding that knowledge in the design process and business strategy. Working for companies large and small, she has led teams that provided research, design, and UX strategy services. Now, she is running her own consulting practice. Amanda frequently writes and speaks about her work experience and loves helping others craft their UX career. She has a human-factors background and an engineering degree from Tufts University.  Read More

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