Should you hire a UX specialist or a UX generalist?

As a UX Manager, adding a new person to your team is one of the most difficult and critical things you’ll ever do. Adding the right person will dramatically increase the quantity and quality of the work your team produces. However, adding the wrong person can create morale issues and even decrease your effective throughput.

Who Do You Hire?

You want the new person to be an asset to the team. What type of person should they be?

Do you want someone who broadly understands many areas of UX? Or do you desire an individual who has a rich and deep experience in an important area, such as interaction design, information architecture, user research, or visual design?

The Specialist: If you see your team lacking in a particular area, it’s tempting to fix it with someone who brings those talents to the team. With the specialist’s unique experience and skills, they could blast through assignments in their area of specialty much faster than any other team member. This would enhance the team’s overall quality and expertise.

The Generalist: It would also be tempting to find someone with broad skills—someone who can switch between skill sets, as the projects demand. A generalist like this would have value regardless of the nature of the project, giving flexibility to the types of assignments the team could tackle.

Which do we hire, a specialist or a generalist? That’s the question we need to answer.

Avoiding the Compartmentalist

Make sure it's the right choice

Before we continue, there’s one point of common confusion I want to clear up: there’s a difference between a specialist and a compartmentalist.

A specialist brings a lot of skills and experience in one or more specialties. Maybe they’ve done a bundle of big and small information architectures projects. They’ve made a point of keeping up on the latest thinking and have perfected many new techniques. Their experience helps them assess problems quickly and pick a plan of attack that typically results in successful designs.

Some specialists are truly specialized. For example, you may find an interaction designer who has delved deep into institutional financial systems. They’ve accumulated thousands of hours of designing for the unique problems of this specific domain. Their knowledge of the challenges in institutional finance management and how to work past them would be exceptionally valuable to your team, if you were designing for that.

A great specialist, however, isn’t restricted to work in the areas of their specialties. They can adequately (or better) produce work and results in other areas. For example, an experienced user researcher could also have great wireframing and prototyping skills. More importantly, they understand how that work is performed and what makes it successful.

A compartmentalist, on the other hand, is a myopic breed of specialist—a person well versed in their specialty, but doesn’t know anything beyond that. Compartmentalists throw their hands up when the work goes beyond their area of expertise or produce poor results.

Of the three types of team members—generalists, specialists, and compartmentalists—the compartmentalists are the least valuable to your team. Unless your team has so much work in the specialty that you can afford someone who is occupied full time, a compartmentalist will frustrate your efforts to deliver great results. Even then, their lack of understanding of how other team members do their jobs will make any hand-offs inefficient.

For the harmony of your team, you want to look to specialists who have a solid understanding of all the areas of user experience. Think of a great orthopedic surgeon who, like most medical specialists, started with general medical training and residencies before they chose their specialty. The surgeon could deliver a baby if they had to, and understand what other doctors do and how they do it.

You want to avoid the compartmentalist, who only understands their one thing. But that brings us back to the question we started with: specialist or generalist?

Conditions Favorable To Specialization

Imagine an organization trying to blast through a flood of highly technical information architecture projects. Hiring a person who can tackle that work expertly and quickly would be really valuable. In simple economic terms, that organization would see more value (and thus pay more money) for an individual with those skills and talents than they’d see for a lesser skilled professional.

However, the increased value from specialization only happens when there is enough work that the organization realizes a productivity increase. If the team only needs information architecture skills on a few sporadic projects, having an expensive specialist doesn’t really pay off.

Specialists will pay off best in large organizations where there is high demand for the specialized work. The more specialized the work, the more valuable someone doing that work quickly and expertly will be.

As the hiring manager, you want to ask, “How busy can I keep this person with their specialized work skills?” If the answer is 100%, a specialized UX professional will be a great deal. Once the number gets lower, it becomes questionable. At this point, a generalist becomes more appealing.

Conditions Favorable to Generalists

When your project work is all over the board and requiring skills from many different disciplines, you’re better off with a generalist. The broad skill sets of generalists allow them to switch quickly.

The best generalists will tackle a complicated interaction design problem on Monday, conduct thorough user research on Tuesday and Wednesday, help another team with their information architecture on Thursday, and sketch out some new page layouts on Friday. Their skills are not just within the specific disciplines, but also in understanding how to switch gears quickly and take on new projects.

Generalists pay off in fast moving organizations with a high-pressure fire hose exuding out small, targeted projects. The fast pace and variety of the work will energize a talented generalist, who brings value by connecting the disparate projects together to create common threads and elements.

When you’re wearing your hiring manager hat, you’ll want to look at the history of your project work. It’s valuable to take an inventory of the skills that your team needed to complete each phase and deliverable. How much of each project was information architecture? How much was interaction design?

The Passion Factor

As you review any candidates applying for the job, you’ll want to look at their previous work experience to see whether they specialized or generalized. If the majority of their projects focused in the particular specialty you’re seeking, then they could be the specialist you’re hunting for. If you’re looking for a generalist, then you’ll want to seek out those folks whose previous work demonstrates a wide breadth of experience.

You’ll also want to see where the candidate’s passions lie. Is a specialist candidate in love with their specialty, craving to learn even more about it? Is a generalist candidate wild about the variety of work, eager to apply their wide range of skills? If you can’t find the passion in their choices, they may not be the best candidate for the job.

UX Generalist or Specialist? It Depends

If you discover your work requires a spread of skills that’s constantly shifting around, then you’re in better shape hiring a generalist. If there’s a core group of skills that’s in constant demand—enough to keep a full time person busy doing that one thing—then a specialist is likely a better bargain. Either way, you want to avoid the compartmentalist.

Midwest UX

Jared Spool will be speaking at Midwest UX, a two-day event combining inspiring talks with hands-on activities and presented by a mix of regional professionals and international experts. The conference will take place  April 9–10 in Colombus, Ohio.

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.

4 comments on this article

  1. Tom Illmensee on

    Excellent article, Jared. I appreciate your perspectives on each type of practitioner. What are your thoughts about helping specialists (and compartmentalists) grow into generalist roles?

  2. Pingback: Hiring User Experience « PETER BURNHAM

  3. Rose on

    How does someone… (who has worked as a logo designer /invitation typesetter for 11 years, who had an advanced diploma in interactive multimedia from 1999 and had basic HTML as part of the course so many years ago when most ux wizzes were about 10 years old back then) …transform/upgrade/update to a UX Generalist. I don’t even own an iphone… you can all get off the floor and stop laughing now 😉

  4. Pingback: Should You Become A UX Generalist Or A UX Specialist? | UX Mastery