The Hands vs. the Brains

Jared Spool

December 30th, 2011

[This article originally appeared at Johnny Holland.]

What’s the difference between contracting and consulting? One major difference comes down to whether the job is handwork or brainwork. Whether you’re an “innie” or an “outie,” this is applicable.

Innies are UX professionals who work inside an organization. Even though they are part of the company, they are still consultants. They are brought on to projects with the intent of lending their skills to move the project forward. Sometimes they stay with one project for its duration, or sometimes they juggle multiple projects at once. Either way, they aren’t really part of the long-term team in the same way others are — they move from team to team and are only there when their skills are in demand.

Handwork and Brainwork

Innies and outies have a lot in common. One thing they share is the need to distinguish whether a project is handwork or brainwork.

Handwork is when the hiring team knows what they want; they just lack the right number of hands to get it all done. Let’s say the team needs new screens designed. They know what the screens are and how they should work. They’ve built many screens before, quite successfully, so it’s not a problem of knowing what to do.

The problem is they don’t have enough hands to get the job done. All of their internal resources are otherwise occupied, thereby stalling the screen-production piece of the project. In this case, they hire a contractor—someone who will come in and help them crank out more screens. This is handwork.

But there’s another way the project could go down. What if our hypothetical team doesn’t know what the screens are or how they should work? What if they don’t have the experience of building screens before and lack the confidence and skills to get started efficiently?

In this case, they need someone to help them come up with a strategy for identifying which screens need work and how to tackle them. In fact, once that strategy is set and they understand what the project needs to be finished, they may have, internal to the team, all the resources necessary to complete it.

This is when they hire an outside consultant; someone who will bring in expertise and skills the team doesn’t otherwise have. This we call brainwork.

Hiring Hands and Brains

It’s quite critical, as a UX consultant (whether you’re an innie or outie), to distinguish between handwork and brainwork—yet the distinction is often not discussed. As I talk to people who are looking to expand their careers, what I discover is they are often trapped doing handwork when what they really want to do is brainwork. (Occasionally, I meet someone who prefers to do handwork to brainwork, but that is quite rare.)

Handwork, for the most part, is commodity work. Once you qualify the basic skills, it really doesn’t matter who does it. It doesn’t take imagination. Previous experience, for the most part, doesn’t play a role in the quality of the output.

If the team needs to produce 100 wireframes and they have a pool of 20 people who are capable of producing those wireframe to their specifications, then it doesn’t matter which of those people you hire. Hire the one who charges the lowest rate, has the nicest personality, and produces the cleanest deliverables.

Brainwork, on the other hand, is where your expertise and experience come into play. If the team doesn’t know what a wireframe is or how to decide what they should do, they’ll want someone who can give them solid advice. It they’re smart, they’ll be selective about who they hire, looking for someone with a track record of helping other teams in comparable situations, and they’ll pay top dollar for their help.

Maybe the team’s leadership is mistaken and they shouldn’t be doing wireframes at all? Well, someone hired to do brain work will have earned the respect and authority to say, “You know, there’s a better way to do this” and the team will listen. (Occasionally, they’ll even revise their plans, but that’s another column for another day.)

However, if that same person was hired to do handwork, there’s no way the leadership will pay attention. It’s wasted breath (or worse, seen as belligerence that may result in removal from the project). Handwork is hired for hands, not brains. Please keep your brains to yourself.

UX professionals who do handwork are what we call the Hands. They’re a rare and valuable breed. Find someone who loves being the Hands and you have a production machine.

The Brains are what we call folks who provide great brainwork. Prospective employers have to be more discriminating when hiring the Brains, because their advice will drive the results, either to success or to failure.

Hiring managers should know which they want. Get the right person for the job and you’ll have a successful project. You need to distinguish between Hands contractors and Brains consultants. In the next installment, I’ll talk about the qualities that separate a great Hands contractor from a great Brains consultant.

[Don't forget to read part 2. After this article was originally published, there was a little confusion. I try to clear it up here.]

One Response to “The Hands vs. the Brains”

  1. Hender eller hjerne? » jflusund Says:

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