Should You Be Hands or Brains?

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This is part 2 of a two-part post. Read part 1.
In the last installment, we talked about the distinction between Hands contractors and Brains consultants. Hands are brought in by the team as an extra resource to complete work the team already knows how to do. Brains are brought in by the team to provide expertise and insight on the best way to do something the team is struggling with.

Hands and Brains require completely different skills, have different approaches, and run into different challenges. Knowing which you want to be is important.

The role of Hands

The UX professionals who make great Hands are passionate about producing stuff. Whether it’s a pile of wireframes or a boatload of usability test sessions, they can crank through them. More importantly, they tackle every single piece of the project joyfully and proudly.

The thing to remember is someone who signs up to be Hands typically doesn’t get to say how the project is done. The team decides that up front, often before the project is started. It’s up to the Hands to match the work exactly, making it impossible to know which elements came from the Hands and which came from other team members.

When it comes to how the work is done, creativity and previous experience aren’t playing big roles. In fact, they are frowned upon. While the team focuses on getting everything done by the end project, they don’t want to step back and take the time to rethink what they are doing.

The Hands will get management’s attention if they have tricks and techniques for speeding up production, while keeping the results indistinguishable from what’s been done so far. An experienced Hands contractor brings speed and agility, while playing the chameleon to match the work of their temporary teammates.

Bring in the Brains

This is a complete opposite to the Brains—who aren’t about production at all, but instead about strategy. The Brains, when at the top of their game, are the sheriffs, coming in to clean up the town. When a team is stuck and not making progress, and it feels like they’ve tried everything without results, they call in the Brains.

Unlike the Hands, the Brains doesn’t make a good producer. Their value is squandered if they spend the bulk of their project time churning out similar items. Of course, if the team is struggling with what to produce and how, the Brains can get them started, showing them the technique and coaching them through the work. But, in this scenario, the Brains quickly backs away, as soon as it’s clear the team members can produce their own results. (Some Brains will bring Hands into the project at this point, working jointly.)

Instead, the Brains’ real value is in strategic understanding of the situation. The Brains looks at the entire scope of the project, studies the goals, and assesses the team’s capabilities and flaws.

Then the Brains suggests a new plan. They get the team started on the plan. They train the team on the tricks and techniques that will get them through that plan. Then they leave town, just like the sheriff, to go off and clean up the next team’s mess.

Why The Difference Matters

Great Hands know how to produce. Great Brains know how to analyze and persuade. They are completely different sets of skills. Hands and Brains require different personalities. It’s very rare to find one person who does both.

Great Hands know how to produce. Great Brains know how to analyze and persuade. They are completely different sets of skills. Hands and Brains require different personalities. It’s very rare to find one person who does both.

The Brains aren’t challenged by production work. Once they’ve done one screen or conducted one test session, they’re ready to move on to something completely different. The Brains love the variety of the tasks—coming in to something new. The Brains love seeing problems and solutions nobody else seems to see. The Brains are energized when those problems are particularly gnarly and the solutions are deviously elegant.

The Hands struggle with strategy. They always feel they’re the wrong people to ask—that someone else should’ve figured this all out by now. They thrive on having a set of constraints, a schedule, and a near impossible pile of similar things to do. They love to crank through the work, seeing the Done Pile grow while watching the To Do Pile shrink. They don’t mind their work blending with the rest of the team’s—their contribution becoming invisible to anyone outside the team. They are energized by completion.

In other words, Hands thrive on walking into a project that’s well defined while the Brains thrive on walking into a project that’s poorly understood. That’s why it’s difficult to be both. It’s a very rare person who thrives on both definition and chaos. For everyone else, they need to choose one or the other.

I’ve seen managers who have tried to have one individual contributor play both the Hands and the Brains. Often this is because of resource constraints or not realizing there’s a difference. Unfortunately, this inevitably ends in disaster, because of the opposing strengths and weaknesses of Hands and Brains. Don’t fall into this trap.

What do you thrive on? What energizes you? Where do you get frustrated? Understanding this will help you figure out if you are suited for the Hands or if you ought to be the Brains.

Jared Spool is the keynote speaker at UX Australia 2010,  being held in Melbourne from the 25-27 August 2010. The conference has sold out, but Jared’s workshop and others are still available, or you can go on the waiting list. See  the site for details.

Jared Spool

Jared spends his days researching how teams create great designs as part of the team at User Interface Engineering. You can hear his latest research on how teams create their design principles at the upcoming UIE Web App Masters Tour across the US this spring. He is also behind the recently published masterpiece, Web Anatomy, even though his co-author, Robert Hoekman, Jr., deserves all the credit for the good bits. Make sure you follow him on the Twitters—he's pretty funny.

9 comments on this article

  1. It’s an interesting discussion, and I think many people have this issue particularly as they progress in their career.

    I thinnk there’s a third dimension needs to be added in to the discussion, and that’s craft.

    Craft is ‘hands’ work, but it’s highly skilled, highly specialist and critical to projects. I think the craft of design is crucial, and getting the details spot on, whether it’s being an expert in best practice CSS, or spot on with your material choices. You always need someone skilled in thr craft of your selected medium to make a project a success.

    Also, this is quite related to the ‘big idea’ vs ‘details’ spectrum in the Myers-Briggs personality tests, which can really help you figure out what kind of work you naturally tend towards.

  2. ben dwyer on

    Thanks, some interesting thoughts. I don’t feel like I fit well into either camp. I enjoy the strategy and creativity of setting up a project, but I don’t feel like this process is just done once and then the project is sorted; its something that evolves over time as the project grows and changes. Is it dangerous to divide these roles too much, when there is such a strong linkage between them?

  3. Mirroring Ben Dwyer’s thoughts I wonder if it is always necessary or desirable to split up the production of design from the strategy of design? There are times when it is a good idea to split these up but there are also projects where the problem solving involved in the fine detail of design needs a good strategic thinker and times when the strategic problems need to be tackled on a detail level as well as an overall level. There are designers out there who do both well. And even when they are split a good ‘hands’ designers needs to be a good strategic thinker. In reality many design jobs require you to do both and thinking that people can only be one or the other can deny you the full capabilities of a designer.

  4. I totally agree with the division of intellect/labor that you set forth, Jared. What I find odd is that, in my own experience coming on 2 years as a freelancer here in Chicago, is that most agencies I do work for need me to be the Brains in order so that I can also be the Hands. There are, of course, exceptions but by and large I find that once I’ve done the strategic work, I am then the only one entrusted to bring it to life.

    I confess that I would, at this stage in my life, become terribly bored if all I did was the strategic work–though I’m sure that can be credited to an all too strong control-freak tendency.

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  6. Interesting Article(s), Jared.

    It has been my observation that most Hands want to be (or think they are) Brains and many Brains were never Hands (either they could not “make” or could not bother to make).

    The challenge is finding Hands that want to be Hands and keeping Hands happy doing Hand work. Even happy Hands run a high risk of burnout and boredom when tasks are too simple or repetitive.

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