Generalism in UX: It’s About Balance

Milo Goodman
Sep 13, 2018 · 3 min read
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The ability to adapt is key for UX professionals, but there’s a catch — you can run the risk of becoming too adaptable and typecasting yourself as a generalist. Generalists are professionals with many surface-level skills, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can be if these skills aren’t fully developed or if your versatility is holding you back from mastery.

“While there is nothing wrong with being a generalist at the beginning of your career — trying a little bit of this and a little bit of that within the wider UX umbrella — advancing professionally in UX often requires expertise,” says Cory Lebson, UX consultant and author of The UX Careers Handbook. “It’s hard to gain that expertise when doing a little bit of everything.”

As a result, many burgeoning designers choose to pursue the opposite: specialism.

Specialism Versus Generalism

While UX generalists typically have moderate knowledge of many aspects of the field, specialists are experts in their area of choice such as visual design, user research, or information architecture, and tend to have less experience with other aspects of UX. It’s important to note that the context of your company is a key variable — generalism is typically the only option if you’re the sole UX professional in your team.

There is still a divide between generalism and specialism, however, which has kindled a debate over which path is best for UX professionals. When it comes to the question of specialism or generalism, the right answer may be the least obvious — a combination of the two. Finding and maintaining an equilibrium between generalism and specialism, however, is like walking a tightrope in that it takes time, focus, and effort to perfect.

Finding Balance with the T-Shaped Model

One way to approach this quandary from a methodological standpoint is through the T-Shaped Model. The T-Shaped Model refers to professionals who are characterized by their disciplinary knowledge in one area and their broader skills and knowledge in one or more separate sectors. The vertical bar on the letter represents specialized expertise, while the horizontal bar stands for general related skills.

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On the spectrum from pure generalist to pure specialist, those who adhere to the T-Shaped Model are somewhere in the middle in that most have a multifaceted mastery of one particular discipline but supplement this skill set with the necessary knowledge to collaborate efficiently and effectively with other members of their team.

In other words, by combining their broad breadth of knowledge with a specialty or two, T-shaped professionals are the best of both worlds. For example, a T-shaped UX professional could have significantly strong design skills and experience along with base knowledge in related areas like writing, research, and prototyping.

Remaining Adaptable Without Becoming a Generalist

It’s important for all UX professionals, T-shaped or otherwise, to remain flexible enough to accommodate the ever-changing world of tech.

“Regardless of experience or expertise, there is always something to learn in UX,” says Amanda Stockwell, President of Stockwell Strategy. “Technologies and platforms change, new tools or methods are developed, and traditional methods get altered to fit new contexts, [so] it’s important for anyone in UX to keep learning and experimenting.”

Although it can be tough to both juggle your job and stay up-to-date with industry trends, you can use a range of resources online to hone your UX skills on your own time. Gymnasium’s free online courses, including UX Fundamentals, Working With Atomic Design and Pattern Lab, and Introducing Sketch for UX and UI, allow you to learn at your own pace and on your own schedule.

Whether your goal is to become a generalist, a specialist, or T-shaped worker, keeping up with the field and committing to lifelong learning is a key to success for every UX professional.

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