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.