The Hands vs. the Brains

image of brain
What’s the difference between contracting and consulting? One major difference comes down to whether the job is handwork or brainwork. Whether you’re an “innie” or an “outie,” this is applicable.

Innies are UX professionals who work inside an organization. Even though they are part of the company, they are still consultants. They are brought on to projects with the intent of lending their skills to move the project forward. Sometimes they stay with one project for its duration, or sometimes they juggle multiple projects at once. Either way, they aren’t really part of the long-term team in the same way others are—they move from team to team and are only there when their skills are in demand.

Handwork and Brainwork

Innies and outies have a lot in common. One thing they share is the need to distinguish whether a project is handwork or brainwork.

Handwork is when the hiring team knows what they want; they just lack the right number of hands to get it all done. Let’s say the team needs new screens designed. They know what the screens are and how they should work. They’ve built many screens before, quite successfully, so it’s not a problem of knowing what to do.

The problem is they don’t have enough hands to get the job done. All of their internal resources are otherwise occupied, thereby stalling the screen-production piece of the project. In this case, they hire a contractor—someone who will come in and help them crank out more screens. This is handwork.

But there’s another way the project could go down. What if our hypothetical team doesn’t know what the screens are or how they should work? What if they don’t have the experience of building screens before and lack the confidence and skills to get started efficiently?

In this case, they need someone to help them come up with a strategy for identifying which screens need work and how to tackle them. In fact, once that strategy is set and they understand what the project needs to be finished, they may have, internal to the team, all the resources necessary to complete it.

This is when they hire an outside consultant; someone who will bring in expertise and skills the team doesn’t otherwise have. This we call brainwork.

Hiring Hands and Brains

It’s quite critical, as a UX consultant (whether you’re an innie or outie), to distinguish between handwork and brainwork—yet the distinction is often not discussed. As I talk to people who are looking to expand their careers, what I discover is they are often trapped doing handwork when what they really want to do is brainwork. (Occasionally, I meet someone who prefers to do handwork to brainwork, but that is quite rare.)

Handwork, for the most part, is commodity work. Once you qualify the basic skills, it really doesn’t matter who does it. It doesn’t take imagination. Previous experience, for the most part, doesn’t play a role in the quality of the output.

If the team needs to produce 100 wireframes and they have a pool of 20 people who are capable of producing those wireframe to their specifications, then it doesn’t matter which of those people you hire. Hire the one who charges the lowest rate, has the nicest personality, and produces the cleanest deliverables.

Brainwork, on the other hand, is where your expertise and experience come into play. If the team doesn’t know what a wireframe is or how to decide what they should do, they’ll want someone who can give them solid advice. It they’re smart, they’ll be selective about who they hire, looking for someone with a track record of helping other teams in comparable situations, and they’ll pay top dollar for their help.

Maybe the team’s leadership is mistaken and they shouldn’t be doing wireframes at all? Well, someone hired to do brain work will have earned the respect and authority to say, “You know, there’s a better way to do this” and the team will listen. (Occasionally, they’ll even revise their plans, but that’s another column for another day.)

However, if that same person was hired to do handwork, there’s no way the leadership will pay attention. It’s wasted breath (or worse, seen as belligerence that may result in removal from the project). Handwork is hired for hands, not brains. Please keep your brains to yourself.

UX professionals who do handwork are what we call the Hands. They’re a rare and valuable breed. Find someone who loves being the Hands and you have a production machine.

The Brains are what we call folks who provide great brainwork. Prospective employers have to be more discriminating when hiring the Brains, because their advice will drive the results, either to success or to failure.

Hiring managers should know which they want. Get the right person for the job and you’ll have a successful project. You need to distinguish between Hands contractors and Brains consultants. In the next installment, I’ll talk about the qualities that separate a great Hands contractor from a great Brains consultant.

More thoughts on this topic: Should You Be Hands or Brains?

Want to meet Jared?

Jared Spool is the keynote speaker at UX Australia 2010, being held in Melbourne  from the 25-27 August 2010. To pick up one of the (less than 30 at time of going to print) tickets, register on their site.

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.

14 comments on this article

  1. Great article Jared!

    While reading it, I kept thinking about the hiring process. Why do organization always want to see Hand work, even when they are hiring for Brain work?

    Anytime a designer applies for a position, they always want to see the deliverables, which may not be as tangible in Brain work. Furthermore, a person that is good at the Hand work and produces clean deliverables may not be necessarily be the best at Brain work (and vice versa).

    So how do we show our Brains? Thoughts?

  2. Sorry, but I’m not a UX professional, though I’ve a keen interest in the matter. I’m a software tester. However, the distinction you draw applies equally to us, and it’s something that has caused me to agonise about the direction my career should take.

    I’m self-employed and concentrating on the brainwork consulting. I want to help companies test better. In particular I want to help them incorporate UX into their development and testing.

    The trouble is that by far the easiest route into a company is by the handwork route, to be hired as a test manager in the hope that you’ll be able to suggest better ways of doing things. It doesn’t work, for me at least.

    This paragraph really spoke to me. “However, if that same person was hired to do handwork, there’s no way the leadership will pay attention. It’s wasted breath (or worse, seen as belligerence that may result in removal from the project). Handwork is hired for hands, not brains. Please keep your brains to yourself.”

    Yup, I’ve been there, and parted company with the client at the end of my contract rather than renew.

    That approach may work in some cases, but I’ve decided that signing a six month contract in the hope I’ll be able to catch someone’s ear is an unacceptably high risk in career terms. If it doesn’t work out that’s six months in which you can’t do anything worthwhile, and if it happens repeatedly you damage your image as a Hands contractor too, because you never get renewals.

    However, that route is tempting in financial terms, because a succession of Hands contracts pays very well, whereas there can be long gaps between Brains contracts. I’m sticking with the Brains route anyway, because ultimately it is demoralising if you are continually working the wrong way, without the opportunity to make a change for the better.

    A real problem for Heads consultants is that companies often like to play safe and wheel in the big consultancies. The irony is that the big guys might send along a fairly inexperienced consultant, with far less experience than the small guy who was rejected. I was one of those inexperienced consultants, and I cringe now at how little I knew when I was sent out to tell big clients how to test.

    I know far more now, and I think I have a far better, more nuanced understanding of software development, testing, business and life. That’s maturity, I suppose. It also means I am far more keenly aware of the vast range of my ignorance. However, it would be difficult for me to get into the same sort of big clients today that I worked with 10 years ago to do similar Brains consulting.

    That’s fine. I can make do with smaller clients who are more responsive and flexible. The important thing, I keep telling myself, is to keep on with the Brains consultancy, which will pay off in the long run, and not to cut and run for lucrative, but often brainless, Hands work.

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  6. Alla,

    I wrote these articles because I wanted hiring managers to understand the difference between Hands and Brains. I also wanted folks who take pride in being Hands and do great work to have a way of expressing their value. I wanted to put a vocabulary around the different type of work so we can have open conversations about what we want and how we get there.


    You are right that there are parallels in other disciplines, like software testing.

    The trick to marketing a Brains consultancy is to make sure your Brains are all over your marketing materials. In other words, are you writing and presenting on the thinking you’re bringing to the table.

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