Not to beat a dead horned equine, but… I’d like to argue the perks of being a generalist. If you’re just getting started as a UX Designer—or even if you’re not—adding even one complementary skill to your repertoire can open up whole new worlds of insights. So what are some of the benefits of taking a generalist approach?
You know how the pieces fit together
When you understand how to personally complete a step in the software process, you can better understand how each part fits in the whole. When I do wireframes as an interaction designer, the visual part of me is still along for the ride, silently making notes, influencing typographic and hierarchy choices. If I’m doing the interaction and collaborating with a visual designer, my understanding of visual design helps me define how we’ll work together. I can also more easily explain which visual choices I made for a reason—and those I haven’t given much thought to yet.
If I’m designing and collaborating with a developer to build my design, it’s so much easier to anticipate her needs if I have coded a thing or two in the past. If I’ve tried my hand at testing and QA, it changes how I file that next bug report. Having a general idea of how the whole sausage gets made can help you do your piece more effectively.
Take advantage of more opportunties
Being broad in your skills allows you to take advantage of the best opportunities that come your way. Yes, there are tradeoffs between breadth and depth, so one approach is to choose a few areas to develop depth in, and have others which you deliberately have more shallow skills in. (At least, for now.) If you’re just starting out, pick one skill to hone. Most likely if you are a UX Designer, this skill should be hard-core interaction design and usability, but it could also be user research or visual interface design / UI design. Then you can work your way from that sweet center out.
In particular, if you are a UX Designer that doesn’t currently do visual design, consider exploring it because it can mean a lot more opportunities are available. So many companies start off with just one designer, and so visual skills are a must. Other larger companies want flexibility in how their designers are matched with projects and teams. Now, if you really hate visual design, I’m not urging you to do it. But I’ve met more designers who simply hadn’t had the time to develop the skill. Many others were simply afraid of it or thought of visuals and art as just something they couldn’t do.
If you’ve tried your hand at visual design, and after months of practice hated everything you did, then maybe it’s not you’re thing. But if you haven’t even tried it? How do you know? I firmly believe anyone can develop visual design skills—and even be an artist if they desire.
Variety keeps your work interesting and enlivens creativity
You can be more creative when you apply different mindsets and frames of thought. How would an information architect approach this problem? A visual designer? A tester? Put on your black or your green hat. Any of those mindsets can lead you to a novel approach.
Also, personally—I’m more interested and passionate when I’m trying something new. That may be because I personally love learning, but I also think it’s because the prospect of getting better and growing is baked into the work. It’s not just another project.
Moving from one skill to another also keeps me engaged and feeling inspired. I went through a period where I did only interaction design for several years. Wireframe after wireframe after wireframe! After a while, I wanted to do one more design spec like I wanted a hole in my head.
After a while, as you begin to master it, interaction design can start to feel like rearranging furniture in the same room, again and again and again. Learning visuals, user testing, prototyping, or coding can re-invigorate your process and keep your ideas and your spirit fresh.
The “jack of all trades, master of none” thing is bull shit
What are you passionate about? For me, my passions naturally run broadly. This means that when I discover a new cool idea or discipline, I want to devour it enthusiastically. I revel in acquiring that new skill. I rush headlong toward the “ding!” of leveling up.
Because of this, I learn those new things very quickly. Much more quickly than if I ignored my excitement and tried to focus myself on perfecting the art of the wireframe. That means I learn more. Because I’m driven by my passion.
The idea that I’m trading the opportunity to develop one skill for the chance to develop another is just not true. It’s not a real tradeoff. I did not pass up an opportunity to get even more fantastic at interaction design. Because my passion was not in it, I am not choosing between a 5% skill boost in interaction design versus 5% in visual design or some such thing. More like 1% vs 5 or 10%.
The point is, we approach mastery asymptotically. While you should be sure to develop some depth, at a certain point returns begin to diminish. If you are excited about learning something, that can far outweigh the supposed “opportunity cost.”
David Cole of Quora said this more eloquently than me here: http://irondavy.quora.com/The-Myth-of-the-Myth-of-the-Unicorn-Designer
To summarize: Good UX crosses boundaries. Why don’t you?
We all know good user experience is approached holistically. The more holistic of an effect we’re able to have on the overall system, the better. We don’t draw arbitrary lines and say, “We don’t care about anything after [they give us their money / call support / refer a friend] – that’s not part of the experience.” The whole point of calling what we do user experience is that we don’t ignore any piece of the process.
So take that philosophy and apply it to yourself. In order to deliver to users the best experience you can, you’re going to need to influence every part of your company and product. And to influence every part of your company—you’re going to need a breadth of skills in every part of the process. Developing that will help you speak the language of the teams you have to work with. And it’ll also give you a healthy respect for the deep experts in each part as well.
Just do me a favor. Beware of Dunning–Kruger effect. But don’t be too humble in your abilities: Imposter syndrome.
Have I convinced you? Read one less internet rant like this one, and go get started with this excellent article by the ever-amazing Jared Spool. GO FORTH, MY FRIEND, AND BE MAGICAL!
What’s one skill you’re going to develop to be more of a generalist? Or, if I haven’t convinced you, why do you prefer a more specialized route?
Image via Flickr user Emre Ayaroglu.
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You make some great points here, and as a fellow generalist, aspiring T-shaped unicorn, it’s reassuring to hear the voice of another!
I love the way you mentioned the holistic approach. Unable to pin myself to one definitive skill I tend to look for the connecting threads, the holistic glue that unites the different skills sets and subjects. What are we trying to achieve with these skills after all?
Having an insatiable curiosity and passion for learning new things means you invest yourself in many different camps. This opens up the lines of communication and gives you an insight into the challenges, needs, and goals of different groups.
It can also effectively ward off an Us vs Them mentality. By not solely identifying with one specialist area, but remaining open and curious, you foster a spirit of cooperation and build trust through understanding.
Is it even possible to be a specialist UX designer?
I’ll leave it there, great work with blog, really enjoying reading your thoughts, keep up the good work!