UX Generalists & Specialists

May 22nd, 2009 · 3 Comments

The IxDA discussion list has got me thinking about being a UX designer and whether it’s better to specialize or to generalize. I’ve discovered that it depends on you and your company’s circumstances.

Which is better?

If you’ve been reading the IxDA, you’ve probably noticed how heated the discussion gets when someone brings up anything like what I’m about to analyze. Some people make a big deal (read: rant) about the difference between UX generalists and UX specialists. The argument that I’ve observed is along the lines of this:

Which is better (note: better is ambiguous)? A generalist, proficient with a wide range of skills or a specialist, superb at one skill, less than adequate at other skills.

The score

I’m in the generalist camp, but hear me out. From where I stand, I can improve any one skill to above average (I’m being modest) with some hard work and guidance. If a specialized UX designer, with no skills in coding wants to become proficient at an above average level, they’ve got a longer way to go than the generalist. That’s a fact. But the question is, why would they ever need to know an above average level of coding? In their current position, they don’t, because someone else who has specialized in coding will do a much better job at it than them. Point for the specialists. 1-0.

The specialists say “generalists can’t devote enough time to one thing to become a true expert, or if so, it’s rare.” And that may be true. But if a generalist spent all their time on one thing, then they wouldn’t be getting their job done. A job that requires them to know a decent amount of coding, graphic design, back-end integration, fire fighting, and juggling. By being a generalist in a position that requires it, I’m helping to get my startup off the ground better than if I were a specialist who only did HTML/CSS. That’s a fact, and a point for the generalists. 1-1.

Tie breaker: circumstances

It all comes down to circumstances. If your circumstances require you to specialize, then be specialized. If your circumstances require you to generalize, then generalize. If you find yourself as a one in the other’s world, my recommendation: get your job done, or get a new job. Get your job done, regardless of the circumstances.

It’s not about us. UX design isn’t the top of the totem pole. The number one thing that’s most important is the health of your business. Don’t get me wrong, your customers are important, and the health of your business depends on them. But you can’t control your customers. The end of your control is your business management. From there, you’ve got to rely on sound judgment from your superiors and great UX design.

The real question

The question should be rephrased, or rather, honed to this:

Which is better for your business? A generalist, or a specialist?

The answer is a hard one, and I won’t try to answer it here. But now we know the question we should be asking. Is it right for your business to hire a UX specialist or a UX generalist? Discuss.

Tags: Design · User Experience · Philosophy · Jobs · Development · Generalist · Specialist

What do you think?


  • 1 AJK May 26, 2009 at 2:14 am

    My 2 cents:
    Generally speaking, aren’t managers generalists and staff specialists?

    Managers & generalists needs the broader picture, while staff needs to focus on the task at hand. So depending on your role in the company, it will probably determine what you need to be.

    Some companies expect generalists because they cannot afford more than one specialist.

  • 2 Jason Robb May 28, 2009 at 7:34 pm

    Quite true, AJK! The affordability factor plays a big role at my startup (http://languageinternational.com). And if you don’t have a project manager, like me, you need to manage yourself. Just another bit of circumstantial evidence.

  • 3 Janko Oct 4, 2009 at 11:57 pm

    Excellent article, couldn’t agree more. I don’t know if the term is appropriate but “UX developer” could cover both sides… just a thought.