Choosing between Generalizing and Specializing as a UX designer

As designers, do we choose to specialize our skills in a specific field or broaden our range of knowledge?

With technology progressing so quickly over the past century across a myriad of industries and the (over)abundance of knowledge at our disposal, a lot of people have found themselves amidst the dilemma of having to allocate their time and resources more efficiently than those in the past. One of these pressing choices is having to strategically choose between specializing their skills in a specific field or broadening their range of knowledge.

Generalists vs. Specialists: the Age-Old Question

To provide an analogy, within the field of ecology, different species fall under a continuum in regards to the environmental conditions they live in as well as their access to different resources.

On the left-hand side of the continuum below lie specialists, animals that have a narrow niche and are less adaptable than their generalist counterparts. Their specialized focus is analogous to UX designers that concentrate their knowledge in a particular area, such as UX research or visual design. Specialists have an advantage when job market conditions are more constant and the demand for their skill set is high, but are also more easily impacted by job automation and fluctuation in market demand.

Specialists Versus Generalists

A simplified linear representation of our ecological environment. This is an analogy to the complex plethora of skills that people in the field of experience design have.

Conversely, on the right side of the graph are generalists. Species that are generalists are more adaptable in their ecological environments but tend to have to compete against other generalist species for the same resources when conditions are more constant. UX designers that label themselves as generalists can do a bit of everything (jack of all trades) and are more flexible than specialists but have more trouble differentiating themselves from other designers in the workplace.

Fortunately, humans have more flexibility than most animals because we aren’t constrained by local environments and have the flexibility to pivot and move between different industries and careers. We have the ability to grow our skills either vertically or laterally, but this results in the challenge in choosing how we want to brand ourselves.

In 2017, I posted a personal reflection after reading Mark Manson’s book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. In that article, I expressed my struggle to choose between becoming and branding myself as either a generalist or a specialist. Since I’ve written that post, I’ve seesawed back and forth about the direction of my career, and I’ve come to the realization that no one requires me to choose explicitly between branding myself as a generalist or as a specialist.

Specifically, within the field of experience design, I find that most successful leaders in the field fall somewhere in between these two extremes. As I come across more literature on the topic and attend more conferences led by leaders in the industry, I’m finding additional evidence that supports this theory.

The Broken Comb Designer

Around a month ago, I attended a talk led by Jared Spool called “Why Is Hiring Great UX Professionals So Damn Challenging?” During that talk, he approached the problem of hiring UX designers as an experience design issue, identifying flaws in the current hiring model and proposing solutions that would rectify those flaws.

Jared Spool, UX Expert and Teenage Heartthrob

Jared M. Spool, usability and design expert who gave a talk on hiring UX Professionals (image source)

Specifically, Spool alluded to the problematic current state of the hiring process, namely on the side of companies and organizations looking to hire. After sifting through hundreds of different job applications for UX-related roles, he found that most job descriptions (responsibilities, requirements, titles, etc) are ambiguous and don’t accurately describe the position being offered.

Spool introduced the concept of the T-shaped individual to provide a backdrop on his proposed solution. Several decades ago, Tim Brown from IDEO popularized the concept of the T-shaped individual, a simplified model for describing an individual and his/her skills and knowledge. Opposed to a pure specialist or generalist, a T-shaped individual has a broad base of knowledge or set of skills in many fields but is also an expert in one of those areas.

T-Shaped People are Capable in a Lot of Things and Expert in One of Them

Graphic from Jason Yip's article "Why T-Shaped People?"

Since the introduction of that model, the world has only grown in complexity, and many people have realized that the T-shaped model is a not viable model for characterizing or describing the complexity of people. Instead, Spool presents a model called the “Broken Comb” model to better represent the complexity of designers and their skillsets.

Broken Comb Diagram of a UX Designer

A simple broken-comb representation of an ideal UX design candidate (taken from Jared Spool’s slide deck on hiring UX professionals)

In the broken-comb model, Spool extends the concept of the T-shaped individual by appending additional “limbs” to its broad base. Doing shows the intricacies and varied skillsets that most people have, proposing that most individuals are multi-faceted and possess varying degrees of ability in different areas. Instead of specifically identifying people as either generalists or specialists, the broken comb model introduces a fluid continuum where within that continuum, people are ranked and evaluated based off their skillsets and which skills are desired by the hiring company.

To fully utilize this model, however, companies still have to know exactly what type of designer they’re hiring for and what position or skills that position requires. Similarly, applicants and candidates have to know what type of position they’re looking for and whether their skills align with what the position entails.

Continuously Collecting Knowledge

One of my personal maxims is that no knowledge is bad knowledge unless it’s wrong knowledge. For humans, our brains are composed of broad webs of knowledge that are constantly evolving and intricately interconnected. The more we learn about a subject, the deeper insight we have about that area, giving us the ability to make deeper connections between concepts that would otherwise appear completely unrelated at a cursory glance.

In Ian Leslie’s book, Curious, the concept of curiosity is introduced as a natural trait that is vital to intellectual development. Yet he states that “only some retain the habits of exploring, learning, and discovering as they grow older. Those who do so tend to be smarter, more creative, and more successful. So why are many of us allowing our curiosity to wane?”

Ian Leslie

Curious by Ian Leslie

To counter the slow deterioration of this desire to know and learn, Leslie proposes that we forage, collect, and hold on to any knowledge that we come across. He quotes Paola Antonelli, a senior curator in the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Two of her quotations are extremely relevant to us as designers.

“Designers increasingly find themselves working in groups and have to adapt quickly to other forms of knowledge”.

“The spread of digital technologies into more and more areas of our lives is blurring the boundaries between domains: “Designers now have to be more versatile than ever, and that means being curious about the knowledge of other people”.


UX Designers are increasingly being coveted by companies in industries that were previously not very common industries for designers to work in. The onset of more intricate technologies and the realization that great design can be a competitive advantage helps designers stand out amongst the crowd. Industries requiring deeper familiarity and insight such as finance and healthcare seeks designers that have the ability to expand their knowledge of the industry, as well as have a broad foundation in both the hard and soft skills required from a traditional UX designer.

The Cookie Cutter UX Designer

There is no such thing as a cookie-cutter UX designer. Companies should not expect to find someone who can do it all, and do it all well. The same applies to engineers and many other specializations as well. When hiring a software developer, companies don’t expect that hire to be proficient in iOS development, front-end web development, cloud architecture, and Wordpress development. When hiring an architect, companies don’t expect that person to be experienced in industrial design, urban planning, landscape architecture, and interior design. There should be a strict polychotomy in the roles and responsibilities that each one of these positions will expect.

As the field of UX starts to mature, there needs to be a clearer division in the responsibilities and skills expected from positions with different job titles. The number of titles in our field is far and few — UX designer, UX researcher, UX engineer, UX manager, and what’s worse is how seniority in the job descriptions for these positions is commensurate with years of experience, rather than with what the employee is expected to accomplish in those positions.

To better understand the skills and responsibilities that are necessary for the field of interaction design, Elizabeth Bacon developed a comprehensive model that includes high-level areas of expertise and skills required for each one of those separate areas. We can strive to better ourselves in each one of these aspects (or at least be able to speak about these concepts broadly), but certain positions will require a general knowledge of all of these slices and others will expect a hire to fill a very specialized role. In either case, the onus is on the hiring companies to identify their hiring needs and post job listings that meet those expectations.

Conclusion

This model applies to a lot of other industries as well — not just UX. A year ago, I asked myself whether I should become a specialist or a generalist. Today, I know I don’t need to label myself anymore. I believe that as humans, we like to label and organize ourselves into neatly defined buckets because it helps us simplify the complexity in our lives, but it’s difficult to find labels that encapsulate who we are as multi-faceted, constantly evolving individuals.

For me, working in the UX space is a perfect fit for my skills and my goals. I chose to generalize because the position I’m currently in requires a multifarious set of experiences and skills, and it’s a perfect fusion of the experiences and skills I’ve accumulated over the past several years. In the Master’s program I’m currently in at Bentley University, I see people in similar situations, trying to pivot into experience design from fields such as English Literature, Architecture, Civil Engineering, and Computer Science.

If you get worried that you’re lacking knowledge in a particular area and that you don’t have enough time to learn everything, know that you should focus on what you enjoy and what you’re good at. There’s not enough time in our lives to learn everything, so as long as we follow our interests and make the most out of our time, we’ll find our footing.