“Help! Is there a Cardiothoracic Surgeon in the room?”

In an emergency, you fetch a doctor.

Interestingly, there are no doctors. Or, more accurately, there are many doctors that you don’t want to help you in a medical emergency. (My good friend, with the Ph.D. in 15th Century English Literature, is not the person you want to deliver the baby, even if he was the only Doctor on the island.)

Many qualified medical professionals don’t have an official “doctor” title. Rehabilitation specialists, nurse practitioners, and myriad other professionals deliver trained, quality healthcare despite missing that quintessential label.


In an emergency, a layman looks for a doctor. It’s a useful term and it works great.

If you’re having a heart attack, you might want a Cardiothoracic Surgeon. Certainly, if the result you want is to have your chest cut open, your ribs spread, and your heart massaged. On the operating table, this is a great result. In the foyer of the Opera House, an EMT might in fact be better qualified to help you. (Cardiothoracic surgeons are doctors, while EMTs are not, usually.)

Some of you may know that during the past 16 years, we’ve been researching what makes the ideal UX team. One of our early results is that roles don’t matter, skills do. It doesn’t matter if a team has an interaction designer or information architect. It does matter that interaction design and information architecture skills are present amongst the team.

Teams with the right skills are more likely to produce great user experiences. Teams missing the right skills are very unlikely to produce anything exciting or delightful. (Of course, we can’t say ‘never’. Even a blind squirrel finds an acorn every so often. But, if I’m staffing a team, I want to do so in a way that will have the best odds, no?)

Our research showed there are core skills: interaction design, information architecture, user research, visual design, information design, fast iteration management, copywriting, and editing. There are also what we call enterprise skills, some of which are: analytics, development methods, design-to-development documentation, ethnography, social networks, marketing, technology, business knowledge, and domain knowledge. (If you’re interested, I wrote about these in more depth and gave teams a tool to assess their strengths.)

On the best teams, every team member has a solid foundation in all of these skills. That’s important because it gives the team flexibility. No matter who is available, no matter what needs to get done, a competent and informed job is possible.

When teams are made up of specialists — teams that have only one person who can do a thorough job with a particular skill — those individuals run into the “binary workload problem” — either they are overworked or unnecessary. There is either too much work for them, thus creating a backlog, or they don’t have anything to do, thus wasting a valuable resource.

The best teams still have individuals who are top-of-their-game in one skill area or another. People who are up to date on the latest thinking and techniques. But, because the entire team is fully competent in the skill area, they can leverage their exceptional skills in those areas on the rare project that demands it, plus act as an advisor and mentor to the rest of the team, thereby continuing to raise the entire team’s skills further.

In my opinion, we’ll see less emphasis on individual specialist job titles going forward. We’re already seeing that in the job postings that have come out in the last year. They tend to be looking for more generalist individuals with a well-rounded, rich set of skills. Many teams can’t afford to have members who are missing the core skills, even if the skills they have are rich unto themselves.

(This goes beyond the “T-shaped person” concept that’s been floating around, or its more recent cousin, the “broken comb shaped person.” We’re talking a full hair brush here. I promise to never use that metaphor again.)

UX is not something unto itself. UX is a synergy of all the skills of the team. The more skills and the richer each team member is, the better the UX that will result.

And you probably wouldn’t want to check into a hospital filled only with extremely talented cardiothoracic surgeons, unless chest surgery is the solution to every problem you have.


This article was originally published at ixda.org.

If you’re interested in making design a competitive advantage for your organization, then you’ll want to see what we’re planning for the UX Advantage Conference in Baltimore, August 18–19.

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