Specialists vs. Generalists

by Jared Spool

As I mentioned yesterday, only some organizations will have the demand and resources to employ a staff of user experience professionals, such as information architects, usability professionals, and interaction designers. If your team is going to employ these folks, are you better off with specialists or generalists?

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

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.

Specialists and generalists are not new. They’ve been in other fields for years, such as medicine. For example, at the Lahey Clinic, here in Burlington, MA, there is a Dr. Margles who is an orthopedic surgeon specializing in hands and wrists. 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. He’s definitely a specialist.

11 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.

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 discipline 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.

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 group of specialists.

That’s they 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.

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

While we don’t have exact numbers yet, our early findings suggest that fewer than 15% of the organizations we’ve studied have the economic conditions that could support user experience specialists. These organizations have enough workload to keep a usability professional just doing research, day in and day out, or an information architect just working on IA issues, etc.

This means the other 85% of the organizations should be looking for people with a broader set of skills. They should look for people who understand the different disciplines and can move between them quickly.

Again, the implications of all this are interesting:

  • Do we know how to modify our tools, techniques, and practices, based on whether we’re in a specialist environment or a generalist environment?
  • Do we know how to guide potential employees into one area or the other? If someone is expecting to be a specialist, will they be happy in an generalist position, or vice versa?
  • Do organizations have the tools to assess their own economic conditions? What happens if they hire a specialist when a generalist was really what they required? How do they know when they are ripe for a specialist? What do they have to work towards to get the demand necessary?

Like yesterday, I think the professional organizations need to play a big role in this. To date, they seem to be content only acknowledging specialization (and in many cases, encouraging compartmentalization). However, I believe they need to realize generalists are an important part of our community. (UXnet could be in a position to make this happen, but, to date, they haven’t seemed to contribute much to the conversation, as far as I can tell.)

Our research will continue to delve into these areas. And, of course, we’ll share what we learn.