User Experience (UX) is an umbrella term. But how should you position yourself within that umbrella? Do you consider yourself to be a generalist or a specialist? Where are you headed? In this post, I hope to help you answer that question for yourself.
Let me begin with my own story: several years ago I had somewhat of a career crisis.
I hadn’t yet taken the leap to freelance at this stage; I was working in a salaried role at an organisation that was fun and provided opportunities for growth. I’d moved around between a couple of different roles, but was bemoaning the fact that I had become a jack of all trades and a master of none. Basically, I had become a very good generalist, and was uneasy about the fact.
- I could write code, but only if it solved a relatively simple problem. Once the problem became complicated or the code became more complex, I struggled to get my head around it. I’m a visual thinker, and code isn’t visual.
- I could design a user interface that looked good, but not amazing. I would scour sites like dribbble for inspiration, and come away feeling inadequate, having compared my work to the incredibly talented designers on display.
This is an internal conversation I’m sure many of you have had with yourself at some point in your career.
As is often the case, the answer to the question, “Should I generalise or specialise?” is: it depends. Jared Spool penned a great article from the perspective of someone hiring a UX Designer. In it he articulated the difference between a specialist (someone who brings a good deal of skills and experience in one or more specialties) and a compartmentalist (a person well versed in their specialty, but who doesn’t know anything beyond that area). Compartmentalists are likely to wash their hands of responsibility or deliver results that fall short when the work goes beyond their area of expertise. Don’t be that person!
Letting It Go
Many of us aim for deep knowledge and experience across the board. But is it possible to acquire deep knowledge in all areas under the UX umbrella? There are certainly some individuals who are capable of achieving an extraordinary degree of mastery in muliple areas. However, in my experience they truly are rare. The likes of Bret Victor, Cameron Adams and Shaun Inman don’t come along every day.
Other discussions on this topic advocate a middle ground—the T-shaped skill profile describes a practitioner who has shallow skills in all areas across the UX spectrum, but deep skills in one particular area. While this sounds like an ideal compromise, personally I’ve accepted—nay, embraced—the idea of being a true generalist, and compensate that by learning quickly as required. In fact, the one thing I love most about the UX field is the variety of opportunity, and that to succeed one needs to possess skills that drawn from a range of disciplines and adapt on each project.
However, there’s one absolutely crucial factor that played a huge role in my choosing to be a generalist.
Whether You Believe You Can Or Believe You Can’t, You’re Probably Right
At the end of the day, there are multiple career paths within the UX field. One thing I’ve learned, however, is that mindset is crucial when dealing with the self-doubt that can come from having shallow skills in an area that a client expects you to be an expert. I strongly believe this: learn enough to give yourself a solid background, back your ability to learn quickly, and you’ll stand a much greater chance of achieving success. You may have a realistic view of your own abilities, but there’s no need for your future client or employer to know the full story. Note I’m not advocating you be deceptive; just that, if you’re a quick learner, you should trust in your ability to get up to speed rapidly when the situation demands it.
If you doubt whether you’re up to the task, you’ll probably discover that you do indeed fall short. However, I’d encourage you to embrace those moments when you’re outside of your comfort zone. I always counter self-doubt with a question I read in Tim Ferris’s The 4-Hour Work Week—I ask myself the following:
Has someone less intelligent than you achieved what are trying to achieve?
Of course the answer is always, “Yes.” I find this answer to be incredibly motivating, and I hope you do too.
I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts. Leave a comment below to tell me how you answer this question for yourself.
- IxDA Discussion: Who Am I?
- UX Generalists & Specialists (Jason Robb)
- Should you hire A UX specialist or a UX generalist (Johnny Holland)
- How To: Adding Depth to UX with Generalists and Hybrids (CMS Wire)
- What Is User Experience (Crazy Egg)
This article has been translated into Russian by Dmitry Kabanov.