Ideal UX Team Makeup: Specialists, Generalists, or Compartmentalists

by Jared M. Spool

Dr. Steven Margles is a world-renown hand and wrist orthopedic surgeon at the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, MA. People come from all over the world to see him. Manufacturers of surgical products seek out his advice. He’s one of the best hands and wrists guys in the world. Dr. Margles is a specialist.

Eleven miles to the west is Emerson Hospital, in Concord, MA. There we find an orthopedic staff of 6 doctors, all of whom are very capable. But none of them specialize in hands or wrists. They work on whatever body parts you bring to them. They are just as good as Dr. Margles and the other specialists at the Lahey Clinic, they just have different experience.

Five hours by car to the Northeast is Penobscot Valley Hospital, in Lincoln, ME. Serving this 24-bed hospital are two surgeons, neither of whom specialize in orthopedics or any other surgical specialty. Of course, surgery itself is a specialty, making it different from general practice or obstetrics. While these two surgeons won’t likely deliver a baby today, they could be doing a hip operation or a heart bypass.

Each of these hospitals have decided to hire specialists. However, the nature of those specialists change because of the needs of the community the hospital serves. How does the hospital staff know what kind of doctor to hire?

Building a Team: Do You Look For a Specialist?

When building a User Experience team, the same question comes up: How do you know what kind of UX professional to hire?

Specialists are professionals who have the time, experience, and projects to allow them to go deep into a discipline, such as information architecture or visual design.

Because they can concentrate on the one discipline, they become very knowledgeable and experienced at solving the problems that crop up. Having a specialist on board is often very valuable, since they’ll know how to tackle the many subtleties that can make or break a project.

The Value of the Generalist

Generalists are professionals whose time and projects demand they learn a broad variety of disciplines. It’s not unusual to find a generalist who daily switches between information architecture, usability research, interaction design, visual design, and even coding.

Because they are constantly switching, they don’t have the advantage specialists have at gaining knowledge in a specific discipline. However, they do have the advantage that they often better understand the intersection between these disciplines. They are extremely valuable because they can see issues and details from multiple perspectives, bringing a broad view to the project.

The Trap of Compartmentalists

Now, don’t make the mistake a lot of folks make and confuse specialization with compartmentalization. While the former is about having the majority of your experience in a single discipline, the latter is about only having experience in that discipline. While Dr. Margles prefers to work on hands and wrists, he could, if the need arose work on other areas. In fact, if he was the only doctor on the island, you’d want him to be the one to deliver the baby. And his medical training and experience would ensure he does it successfully.

A compartmentalist isolates themselves from the other disciplines around them, not really learning what they do or how they do it. Compartmentalism is bad for teams, because it means you have to have enough work to keep that individual busy within that discipline, and if needs shift or emergencies crop up, their value is dramatically diminished.

It’s the Local Economy That Decides

So, that leaves generalists and specialists to staff the team. Which should you hire?

From our research into what makes successful teams, we’ve learned the answer will depend on the economics of your situation. Some organizations will have the demand necessary to support a group of specialists.

That’s the way it is at the Lahey Clinic. They have enough traffic and work to support multiple surgeons who specialize in only certain parts. Dr. Margles usually has a six-week waiting list to see him. He has no trouble staying busy. And, because there are more than 20 doctors in their orthopedic department, patients with problems with shoulders or ankles can find either another specialist or a generalist to help them.

Emerson is more of a regional hospital, servicing the area commonly known as Boston West. The hospital isn’t busy enough to have detailed specialists, so all of the orthopedic surgeons there have to be orthopedic generalists. There just aren’t enough wrist or hand cases to support a specialist in that specific area.

Penobscot Valley is a rural hospital. The surgeons there can handle routine orthopedic cases, but if it requires any sophistication, they’ll send the patient to one of the Portland or Boston hospitals. (Advances in telemedicine are making it easier for specialists from the big-city hospitals to consult with rural doctors when the need arises. This is the equivalent of hiring an outside specialist consultant for a single, complex project.)

Specialists are tempting to hire, but the organizational economy has to support it. If there isn’t enough work to keep them busy, the specialists will slowly gravitate into being generalists.

Similarly, generalists can become specialized because certain skills and knowledge are repeatedly exercised. For example, an interaction designer in a financial services company may develop specialized skills around the problems of account management, having built many different variations over their tenure.

While deciding which to hire can help the team take advantage of their skills immediately, the local economy will inevitably force one direction.

Spreading the Knowledge: The Specialist as Trainer

Our research into successful team building has shown us another interesting trend: teams who utilize their specialists as the local trainers.

For example, one organization reduced the number of usability tests conducted by their most experienced usability professionals, even though the organization’s need for testing was on the rise. The team’s manager saw that they could never meet the demand with the staff they had and didn’t think they could hire enough staff to fill out the surplus.

So, they adopted a different strategy. They reduced the project work for the most experienced folks, asking them to spend their time training others in research techniques. The training raised the general skill level of the group, in essence creating more generalists. While the experienced folks still handled the more complex projects, the basic testing could now be done by anyone in the organization.

The Completeness of the Team’s Skillset

What makes an effective UX team is the completeness of the skillset across all the members. The roles of individuals are secondary—a team with generalists will always be more flexible than a team of specialists.

Specialists help when the local economic conditions support their being there. Yet, specialists have general knowledge, so they can be flexible and interact with the rest of the team in a productive manner.

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is a co-founder of Center Centre and the founder of UIE. In 2016, with Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman, he opened Center Centre, a new design school in Chattanooga, TN to create the next generation of industry-ready UX Designers. They created a revolutionary approach to vocational training, infusing Jared’s decades of UX experience with Leslie’s mastery of experience-based learning methodologies.

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