Introduction to a T-Shape for Product Designers

Stas Shymansky
Mar 1, 2016 · 5 min read
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The Roots

The T-shaped person is a metaphor used to describe a professional with a diverse set of skills.

David Guest originally coined this concept in “The hunt is on for the Renaissance Man of computing” back in 1991. IDEO was a big driving force behind it and was actively promoting it.

Last influence wave was created by Valve Software when Handbook for Valve Employees “leaked”.

T-Shape gives basic structure and variety to dramatically change company or department hiring approaches.

Practical Example

Imagine a typical employee — a designer who can do visual design well. That would be designer’s primary skill. In the new scheme, it makes designer an “I” shaped person. Like this:

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Important to note that expertise can be quantified differently. It can range from years — “Oh, he has been in this for 15 years” to perceptive feelings across all people who interact — “Wow, he is superb at this”.

To accurately identify how deep that “I” is — think of a superpower. What superpower does this person have? It has to be that impressive. Think Heat Vision of Super Man.

Is it possible to have a life without that “I”? Maybe, but it would be hard to contribute to anything with only surface skill in the arsenal.

Can designers learn additional skills? Definitely. With today’s availability of online courses and all kinds of learning materials, it’s not that hard to pick up HTML & CSS or learn to prototype in Xcode.

Additional skills will serve as glimpses into a wide range of areas and will allow connection with people from these areas on a much closer scale.

It’s easier to get skills in similar areas than in an entirely different. If you do product development — it’s easier to learn any related skills than let’s say accounting.

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Congratulations. Now we have a complete T-Shaped multidisciplinary designer.

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In reality, there are 20x more of these additional skills, and there is a potential to count soft skills in as well.

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Working as a team

What is the primary benefit of being the T-Shaped person in a team? Very simple. Let’s see one of the most common cases in product development:

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Designers and engineers often have a wall between them. Each is in his own discipline and is drilling down without having an empathy to see what’s going on in other fields. Creative vs. technical mentality. The main issue — it’s hard for them to get mutual understanding, there is no shared vocabulary.

With an addition of new skills for both and if these skills overlap — there is a much higher chance to connect on different of levels. T-branches become bridges of understanding.

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One of the examples I’ve heard recently is designer & engineer pair work done on iWatch while being at Apple. Pairs like this are one of the most amazing and versatile duos you can get.

How a small T-Shaped team can look like in a “connected state”. There are enough of an experience and shared vocabulary to communicate openly and share ideas and truly innovate.

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Besides original T-Shape there are other profiles, like this one:

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Do you know someone who constantly is in touch with everyone, always attends all conferences possible and always talks a lot? These people also an excellent at emulating an “I” reasonably well.

It also applies to shallow, not deep personalities. You have to be extra careful with people like this. Engage at your risk. It’s only worth it if they are willing to get a deep “I” and then it’s still questionable.

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Rarely you can bump on a superman (or superwoman) — that is the one who have a deep knowledge and expertise in more than one field. These people are real unicorns. If you happen to know one — inspire them, maybe they will want to work with you.

Summary

  • T-Shaped person is the one having deep practical knowledge (depth) and a ton of additional skills (breath)
  • There is a variety of -Shapes
  • Many companies including IDEO, Big Spaceship and many others are already using this approach

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Are you a T-Shaped person?
  • Does your organization support individual learning to allow employees to become multidisciplinary?

If you’ve enjoyed reading this — please ♥ or share. This will tell me to write more of it. Have a good day.

=S

The Edge of a Void

Weekly articles by Stas Shymansky.

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