Multi-Discipline Specialties

Jared Spool

September 11th, 2006

Last week, I talked about the difference between generalists and specialists. In that post, I may have implied specialists are often singular in their specialty, such as a specialist in ethnography.

However, I think that would be a narrow interpretation of how specialties work. To explain, let me turn again to a much more mature practice area, medicine.

Specialties in medicine can be singular, such as orthopedic surgery or podiatry. However, the practice of medicine is now seeing new specialties pop up which are combinations of these singularities.

One such new one is the new discipline of Physiatry. Physiatry deals with restoring function for a person who has been disabled as a result of disease, disorder, or injury. It combines the disciplines of neurology, physical medicine, rehabilitation science, and electromyography.

Physiatry started in the 1920’s, but only came into serious play after WWII when people became concerned with the growing number of war injuries and disabilities. Even then, it’s only really started blossoming as a profession in the last 20 or so years. So, in the entire history of western medicine (going back to the Greeks), it’s a very young branch.

Physiatry is interesting to me because it takes four previously-unrelated disciplines and combines them in a holistic way. This combination allows the physiatrist to diagnose and treat issues that no one branch of medicine could work with.

A physiatrist is not a generalist. They aren’t delivering babies and dealing with rashes, per se. Like other specialties, physiatry is very specific about what it talks about. It just happens to be the intersection of other specialties.

Comparing this to the practice of user experience, I think we already see physiatry-like combos happening. As I mentioned earlier this summer, the artwork from the Mayo Clinic site demonstrates they have people who straddle multiple disciplines: illustration, anatomy, and medical science. I’ve met usability specialists who focus on telephone/interactive voice systems (which have different approaches and problems, due to the non-visual components). I’ve met information architects who specialize in news topics and others who specialize in legal topics. I’ve met visual designers experienced in designing for Eclipse environments.

I expect we’ll more of this as we integrate ourselves into teams. A team will find someone who has skills and experience related to their products domain and to their tools and environments to be very valuable.

I think it’s going to be fascinating to see how people specialize and where that will take us going forward.

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