UX design: A specialist role for a generalist mindset?

David Epstein’s book Range advocates generalists over specialists. Mark Knipe discusses which makes the better UX designer:

Mark Knipe
Mar 4 · 5 min read
A person looking at a wall covered with paper sheets of paper containing sketches and annotated pictures.

As today is World Book Day in the UK, I thought I’d share this article which I was inspired to write after reading Range by David Epstein.

Specialist. We’re familiar with this concept from such a young age, even before we’re taught the meaning of the word. We come into contact with specialists such as doctors, dentists and opticians. We almost take for granted how many roles out there require such a level of devotion and concentration on a particular subject.

But what about a generalist? It may be a term you’re less familiar with. The Collins English Dictionary defines it as “a person who is knowledgeable in many fields of study.”

Sounds like someone useful to have on a pub quiz team, but maybe not someone well-suited to a specialist role such as UX designer…or are they?

Well, using some snippets from Range below I’m going to try and show the value I believe a generalist can bring as a UX designer.

The challenge we all face is how to maintain the benefits of breadth, diverse experience, interdisciplinary thinking, and delayed concentration in a world that increasingly incentivizes, even demands, hyperspecialization.¹

With companies often consisting of an ever-expanding array of specialisations, it’s important that this knowledge and expertise isn’t kept siloed. The creation of cross-functional teams helps with this, and the hiring of T-shaped individuals also goes someway to solving this — however there is still an opportunity for those who can collate a company’s diverse knowledge and fill in the gaps to truly define the whole picture.

UX design is a prime example of a role that has evolved from interdisciplinary thinking.

It takes learnings from, and incorporates elements of psychology, visual design, content strategy, research, business analysis and usability testing.

The role exists for those people who have, or want to learn from diverse experience across a company.

Lightbulb with thought bubbles around it

Our greatest strength is the exact opposite of narrow specialization. It is the ability to integrate broadly.¹

When writing this David Epstein was referring to all humans, but I think this really resonates when it comes to UX design as a profession.

UX design works best when it is integrated broadly — this is the first step to embedding UX across an organisation.

A UX designer has to consider so many aspects when defining and designing solutions — whether that’s engaging with brand on assets, working with the SEO team to ensure content works, collaborating with technology to ensure interactions are feasible… the list goes on. It is becoming more common for all departments to be responsible for improvements in UX, but it is the UX designer who can help combine these, sometimes disparate, improvements into something greater than the sum of their parts.

Sketched wireframes

Modern work demands knowledge transfer: the ability to apply knowledge to new situations and different domains. Our most fundamental thought processes have changed to accommodate increasing complexity and the need to derive new patterns rather than rely only on familiar ones.¹

The world is always changing. What worked yesterday may not work today. With the pace of change it becomes necessary for companies to try and fill knowledge gaps in specialisms that may be up and coming in order to embrace and utilise them for the benefit of their customers.

Humans like familiarity, and it is the UX designer’s job to present the complex ideas of tomorrow into reassuringly familiar patterns from today.

Leveraging ideas or concepts from seemingly unrelated domains can help us make sense of these new opportunities we’re presented with — it allows us to bring elements of usability and continuity to areas of potential usefulness and delight.

People sitting around a table looking at ideas on a computer monitor

While improvising, musicians do pretty much the opposite of consciously identifying errors and stopping to correct them. Improv masters learn like babies: dive in and imitate and improvise first, learn the formal rules later.¹

If we’re continually coming up with new patterns and integrating broadly with more specialisms it can be difficult not having a defined process to follow for each project.

Sometimes there will be projects that are unfamiliar and daunting. There won’t be previous solutions to guide us, but it’s successfully delivering these projects that helps us learn the most and showcase our value as a profession.

This is where the power of a generalist mindset really helps - it allows us to connect the dots to form a complete picture from the otherwise independent sources of data we may have.

Whether you agree, disagree or are still undecided about my thoughts above I’d highly recommend you read this book. It’s got some great insights in it and really makes you think about the role specialism plays in today’s workplace.


How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

by David Epstein


¹ Range — by David Epstein

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