UIEtips: Ideal UX Team Makeup – Specialists, Generalists, or Compartmentalists

Jared Spool

November 17th, 2008

The User Experience world is filled with many disciplines: information architecture, user researcher, interaction design, copywriting, and visual design — to name just a few. Each of these disciplines have a rich history, a deep knowledge base, and an extensive tool set. Each takes a lifetime to master.

While the successful team needs all of these disciplines, there are more of them than most teams have members. This creates a challenge as teams need to spread the experience, knowledge, and skills across multiple team members, turning them from specialists into generalists.

In today’s UIEtips article, I share some of our recent findings in how teams make the call: when should they hire a specialist and when will a generalist work better? Whether you’re a team manager or someone looking to direct their career choices, I think our findings will interest you.

Read the article – Ideal UX Team Makeup: Specialists, Generalists, or Compartmentalists.

What does your organization do to embrace its failures? We’d love to hear from you. Share your thoughts below.

8 Responses to “UIEtips: Ideal UX Team Makeup – Specialists, Generalists, or Compartmentalists”

  1. UIEtips: Ideal UX Team Makeup - Specialists, Generalists, or Compartmentalists | Half Way Success Says:

    [...] Read more:  UIEtips: Ideal UX Team Makeup – Specialists, Generalists, or Compartmentalists [...]

  2. Nick Finck Says:

    There is always the issue of Jack of all Trades, Ruler of None. Having a specialized skill allows you to advance as a professional but with a good understanding of all of the things that impact your area of specialization. Focusing on trying to be skilled in all areas is pretty much a lost cause as I feel it doesn’t allow you the opportunity to advance and essentially you become good at a lot of things yet great at nothing in specific. Having a good demand for your work means being great at something.

    When you think of all of those people who get quoted in books, asked to do keynotes, offers from publishers to write books, they are are specialists.. they are simply amazing at one specific thing, tho they may have a skill set that includes a firm understanding of a lot of different things. For example, when I think of Jared Spool, I think of him not just as a great speaker or writer, I specifically think of him as a great usability guru who can speak and write well on that subject yet also understand a lot about the fields around his expertise.

    My 2 cents,
    - Nick

  3. Livia Labate Says:

    That’s super Jared. This obviously made me think of JJG’s 9 pillars of successful web teams: http://www.adaptivepath.com/ideas/essays/archives/000242.php. Two questions for you:

    1. Is Jesse’s model valid for you? Meaning, in the research you have been doing, did you identify that these are the sets of skills that make up the most successful (web) teams?

    2. The specialist/generalist aspect of an individual’s skill-set is not addressed in Jesse’s model. Either using the skills Jesse uses in that model or another set that you might have identified through research, do you think Jesse’s distinction between tactical and strategic have any correlation with the specialist/generalist experience/knowledge/skills?

    If not, do you have any suggestions of a good way to represent the elements of a team composition (that takes into account skillsets, experience and knowledge)? Or better, a model to represent the “optimal” team composition?

  4. Daniel Szuc Says:

    Suggest its nice to have a broad UX knowledge but also allow yourself to specialize in areas you think you have the greatest strength.

    Perhaps there are also skills which overlap nicely with a number of user research methods so you can go deeper in a few areas? One can also pair this with “enjoyment” and if you can find a specialty you enjoy you can share this passion with those around you (colleagues and industry)

    Also like the idea of sharing knowledge with peers and across industry domains, if your work allows this (as it provides opportunities to observe trends, patterns and capture learnings)

  5. Gail Leija Says:

    I like the story of the fox and the hedgehog, as well as IDEO’s description of T-shaped people. Foxes are may more capable of innovation, while hedgehogs, with their expertise in one big thing, have the capacity (and tenacity) to become virtuosos. T-shaped people have an area in which they may specialize, but they are very good at related areas, as well. For example, I know many interaction designers and developers that are also very good IAs. I discussed this with a group in Toronto recently in a presentation called “Will the Real Information Architect Please Stand Up?” (http://www.slideshare.net/gleija)

    Since all interactive projects are collaborative, there’s no right or wrong at the individual level – it’s about finding the right mix of foxes, hedgehogs, T-shapes, etc. for for your team and putting together the right team for the project. There may be models or formulas for doing that but, in my experience, that kind of management finesse is still more of an art than a science.

  6. Eric Basford Says:

    I would also suggest that there are both “strong generalists” and “weak generalists” (just as a “compartmentalist” is really just a “weak specialist”). In the Maine web design market, there are very few opportunities to work with or become a highly-skilled specialist. Instead, I’ve found success by choosing from my wide skillset to satisfy the task at hand (and often crash computers jumping between Photoshop, Eclipse, FTP and all the browsers that must be satisfied!) But the bottom line is that if I am not highly effective in every tool then the final product falls short in some obvious way. Sure, a “weak generalist” could have all those same programs open, but if he doesn’t know how to synthesize them effectively then he will ultimately fail.

  7. Samantha LeVan Says:

    I think the definition of specialist can differ depending on the culture and size of an organization. In past work, I considered my self a UX generalist because I handled all research, design, and usability testing for a product. When removing myself from the design role for a new position, I felt I had decided to make research and testing my specialty. However, as I’ve seen I’m still a generalist in a sense as I do research and testing on several different types of products. At my previous company, a researcher would have been a research specialist on one product. Now I’m a research generalist on many.

  8. Jhumkee Iyengar Says:

    Nice discussion topic.
    Some other aspects: generalists’ suitability for a consulting organization while greater suitability of specialists for a team within an organization responsible for delivering products. Also whether team perceives itself/wants to be viewed as ‘UX consultants’ vs ‘UX workers’.
    Similar line of thought on a generalists’ suitability for a ‘smaller’ organization and a specialists’ suitability for a ‘larger’ one. Also related to maturation of usability as a competence, particularly relevant to new markets for usability – from ‘weak generalist’ to ‘strong generalist’ to ‘specialist’ (as termed by Eric above).

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