Specialize and generalize

We talk a lot in UX circles about the T-shaped person - not someone who wears T-shirts necessarily, but someone who has skills in a variety of disciplines and is really experienced in one.

I've been in places where one is a specialist and where one is a generalist. And really, there's no magic answer that says, "Aha! UX is going to consist of specialists only!" I do think that's where our industry is collectively headed and the generalists will be for organizations that have not truly invested in UX nor integrated it into their overall business - or, simply, organizations that are not large enough ($$$) to do so.

My first job on the web was as a webmaster. I did everything related to the website for the organization: I was a...

  • visual designer
  • IA
  • UI coder
  • database developer
  • JSP developer
  • writer
  • QA person
  • stakeholder
  • Flash designer (yeah!)

Of course I had signoffs from my boss (in marketing), and sat next to IT so they actually took care of the hosting of the site, but it was largely on me to get stuff going. And I did. But look at the list of skills I mentioned: almost every one of them could be a separate role (and thus, person) today.

Now, the organization I worked for probably wouldn't hire a team of ten to make a website today. Maybe they should. But it would cost a lot more than hiring a unicorn and having that person do everything good enough with expertise in whatever area is deemed most important. (Or, no area if the organization was ignorant about UX - possible.)

I see the generalist as the modern day equivalent of a webmaster. The organization that brings in a generalist can turn to her and get just about everything "related to UX" done. That's efficient. That's cheap, too. 

We're maturing

Specialists, to me, begin to mark the maturity of an industry and an organization. It's not as if specialists didn't exist before last Tuesday; rather we're embracing people who have these deep histories and experiences in fields we must learn from. This is great! And things like usability, human factors, and IA are natural topics for UX - they are the core. As UX continues to mature, we're seeing more specializations get pulled in. Strategy! Product! Creative! Industrial design! Customer service! All of this stuff ends up related because it is , or more precisely, should be .

Why are we continuing to talk about this, collectively? Because it means a lot for where we are going as a discipline and it pulls directly into topics we all care about a lot. The conflation of UI and UX is easier when you have one person "doing the UX" instead of specialists. That may be the cost of being a unicorn, and frankly, I don't see this going away unless UX is a part of an organization's DNA - i.e., do they get it or not.

But the fact that our industry, at least for the time being, can support both specialists and generalists means that we're figuring out what does and does not work. We may never end this debate. It may be that we're always a hodgepodge of diverse backgrounds, brought together for the purpose of caring for users - people. And, to be honest, I'm very comfortable with that. The more the merrier, I say.