Design / UX: Specialists vs Generalists — What’s Better? Here’s the truth

Video version of this article: 
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tf0wVeq3uXM

When I’m out teaching, I frequently get asked “What’s better? To be a jack of all trades designer, or someone that specializes in one specific area of UX? Should I be a full-stack designer? A Unicorn? What do all of these terms even mean?”

Ignore all of the dumb terms for a moment and let’s focus on the real question: Should I focus on being good at one thing, or should I try to be good at all things? Is it even possible to be equally good at all parts of the design process?

So what’s the answer? Is it better to be a specialist or generalist?

The design field is a lot like the medical field: For the first few years of the path to becoming a doctor, you get “Basic training”, or a general education of the body and its functions. After this general education, many doctors decide to just stick to being generalists — also called “General Practitioners”(I’m aware that this is grossly simplified).

Being a general practitioner is sufficient for most cases. However, sometimes you need deeper knowledge to solve very specific problems. For these cases, some doctors go on and study a few more years to specialize on particular parts of the body, like the brain, the heart, or the feet, or how to make people’s faces look younger.

Those specialists end up working either in their own practice or at a big clinic where their services are needed often. They also likely contribute to their specific niche in the medical industry in the form of submitting new research papers to help push the field forward.

But every medical student starts their education with a baseline of general knowledge about how the body functions. It’s generally not possible to be equally good at unrelated specialties like heart surgery and sports medicine, because those individual specializations are too deep to master both equally in any reasonable amount of time. By the time you’ve mastered one, you’d have already forgotten half of the other.

The Truth About Design is that for the first three years of your career, you’re going to be a general design practitioner. If you go to any good design program, you’re going to learn and practice the full spectrum of UX disciplines. In your first few jobs, you’re likely going to be working at small companies that don’t have the need or budget to hire a team of specialists. In your first three years on the job, you’re also simply not going to be good enough at anything to be able to specialize.

The Truth About Design is that for the first three years of your career, you’re going to be a general design practitioner.

Being a generalist is great for at least 80% of cases where a designer is needed. Jack-of-all-trades generalists make great freelancers and great employees at design agencies or small-to-mid-sized companies. Most companies don’t need full-time specialists all of the time. It’s rare that a company needs enough usability testing for someone to do it full-time. Same with content strategy, or information architecture. In many real-life situations, you don’t need to be a master of one discipline of UX, you need to be competent at a number of disciplines, and be able to switch between them. This is also important from a team perspective. If multiple people have overlapping skillsets, then once you’re maxed out on the amount of work you can take on, someone else on the team can help out, and vice versa.

Being a generalist is great, however, it’s not the generalists that push the industry forward.

All of the expertise we have in the industry came from specialists who spent years getting better and better at some niche part of the profession and then spent more years talking about it at conferences and writing articles and books. Specialists draw from the deep wellspring of new ideas and spread that knowledge to the masses of generalists. I’m talking about people like Luke Wroblewski, the expert on mobile design. Or Jorge Aranjo, the eminent expert on information architecture. Or Alan Cooper, the man who invented most of the UX research techniques we use today. Without these specialized experts, the generalists would have no knowledge to draw from.

This is the true meaning of the “T-shaped person”.

The horizontal top line is a set of skills in which you have decent understanding and knowledge, and the vertical center line is a single skill in which you have deep expertise. For example, you might be decent at creating prototyping in code, research, visual design and usability testing, but when it comes to strategy definition and interaction design, you are a master.

Specialists draw from the deep wellspring of new ideas and spread that knowledge to the masses of generalists.

Once you have acquired that level of mastery, you can, if you like, go to the designer’s equivalent of a big clinic where highly specialized skills are needed: A big tech company like Google, Apple or Facebook. After a few years there, you might find the work you do at a big company like that too stifling, but that’s a story for another article.

Discovering your specialty will come as a natural consequence of pushing yourself to your limits

If you decide to just do WordPress redesigns for the rest of your life, sure, you’ll never need to specialize. And if that’s your thing, I won’t judge you for it. But don’t you want to know how far you can go? Where your limits are? And if you just stick to one trick, what are you going to do when the market shifts and that trick is no longer needed?

For example, when I was first starting out, I did everything, including coding. Once I even wrote a basic CMS for a client. As the projects I worked on got larger and more complex, I noticed that I hit a plateau when it came to my coding skills: I just didn’t understand JavaScript, and that was clearly where the industry was going. So I gave up coding in order to focus on just the design aspect as part of a larger team.

Don’t you want to know how far you can go? Where your limits are?

I hit similar plateaus later on in my career with research and visual design: I am a good researcher, but I couldn’t hold a candle to the researchers at Walmart or Google, who had degrees in psychology and anthropology and did this all day. I’m a very competent visual designer, but I hit a similar plateau when I was working with the visual designers at Google, who are basically artists moonlighting as UI designers during the day.

But I haven’t been able to find an interaction designer that is clearly better than me. And I noticed that those designers and researchers never really thought about strategy, markets, and context.

So eventually, through the process of pushing myself into new and tougher situations, pieces of me fell away until I was left with Interaction Design and Strategy. A fortunate teaching opportunity at General Assembly made me aware of my abilities as a public speaker, presenter, and writer. And that’s my core skillset, at which I am able to play at the highest level, with no plateaus in sight. But I still feel like I have so much more to learn.

Summary

Being a generalist is great. But if you’re in the design industry, I truly hope that once you’ve mastered the basics and discovered which areas of the craft you gravitate towards the most, you decide to pick a specialty.

What’s cool about the design industry versus the medical field is that it’s not nearly as complicated and the fields are more interconnected, so it actually is possible to develop deep expertise at multiple areas over the course of your career. Probably not all of them though, because you have to account for interest levels and natural inclinations. But deciding to pick a specialty is an adventure of finding out how far you are able to push yourself in life.

Jamal Nichols runs Truth About Design, the platform for candid truths and guidance for the design industry. We have lots of awesome classes and guidance that help you become a better designer.