On Being A Generalist

Posted on: April 10, 2009

I have been on the lookout for job opportunities since January. Due to the economic constraints at the moment, many job postings want a UX designer with visual design skills who can develop. Although I can do UX design and development, I am not very well versed in graphic/visual design. I was starting to worry that I am missing an important skill.

At SXSW, I spoke with John Kolko and asked him if visual design was a necessity for UX design. He said that since my designs touch the UI, I should understand the fundamentals. He specifically recommended taking class in composition, typography, color theory, and figure drawing.

All of this has been mulling in my head, and then Jared Spool posted this on the IxDA list: Jared mentioned that ROLES don’t matter, SKILLS do, he also said this:

Our research showed there are core skills [that successful teams possess]: interaction design, information architecture, user research, visual design, information design, fast iteration management, copywriting, and editing.

After thinking everything over, including my own concerns, here is how I feel about being a generalist:

First, I completely agree with Jared, the ROLE and role name do not matter, the SKILLS do. People can call me an IA, UX, IxDA, UI, Web designer, whatever, I still bring the same skills to the table.

Out of the skills that Jared listed, here are the ones that I think specifically pertain to UX:

  • user research: because we need to understand the domain and the users of the domain
  • information architecture/information design: because we need to be able to thoughtfully and purposefully structure the content based on user and business goals
  • interaction design: because interaction makes up the large chunk of the experience
  • fast iteration management: because our first ideas are never the best ones, fail quickly and often

The skills that I think are “nice to have” but should NOT be required include:
– visual design
– copy writing and editing
– development (not mentioned in Jared’s list)

The “nice to have” skills that I have listed are in this category because they are professions onto themselves, and I think its unreasonable to believe that a UX designer will be able to master 4 different professions. I believe that if one expects this, then they are going to get a designer who is mediocre at everything. There really is only so much time in the day/life that one can dedicate to new skills, or breadth. Drawing on Jared’s analogy of doctor’s, we would not ask a cardio-thorasic surgeon to deliver a baby, why would we ask a UX designer to craft copy? Yes both a surgeon and an obstetrician are doctors and know the anatomy of a body, much like a UX designer and copywriter know the language, but the mastery of the skill is quite different. If doctor’s have specializations, why can’t UX designers?

This is not to say that people should narrowly specialize, I also agree with Jared on this point, if one is too narrow (only doing usability testing for example), then it could certainly hinder your job prospects because you should be able to apply what you learned from the usability testing to create an improved design, the company does not need to hire another person to do that.

However, visual design, development, and UX design often challenge each other, and it is necessary to have the tension for great designs to emerge. If one person is attempting to do all those jobs at once, they will start compromising on the UX as they begin to think about the code or the grid structure. The compromises start to happen conceptually and the designer becomes constrained.

Now Jared mentioned that the UX designer should have the fundamentals of each of those skills, I am not clear on what Jared means by fundamentals, but I think his definition goes further than my conceptualization – which is knowing enough about the domain to be able to communicate with your colleague. I feel that a UX designer needs to understand the basics of programming, visual design, and copy writing to enable meaningful conversations, debates, compromises and decisions. Understanding how your design is going to be developed has a significant impact on interaction, and one needs to understand those consequences. Similarly, if a visual design hinders usability, the UX designer needs to be able to communicate with the visual designer to come to some kind of agreement that does not break the visual flow. Yet, the UX designer should not necessarily have to create the visual design if the designer falls ill, for example.

Given all that I have said, I know many people have entered the UX field from different domains. I personally came from a computer science/programming background, so don’t mind doing front-end development as well as UX design if things get tight. Others might have come from a visual design background, and so can roll up their sleeves and also do that job. This does not mean that the visual designer needs to be able to code at my level, nor I need to be able to design at theirs. We have our respective skills, and will be able to find work that matches our skill set. This is our version of a cardio-thorasic surgeon vs an obstetrician.

My argument is that a good team should have a well-rounded UX designer (possessing all the required skills, with the nice-to-haves as bonuses), along side separate individuals doing visual design, programming, and copy writing/editing. The UX designer must coordinate with all of these people, but not necessarily be a master at all these skills. I agree with Jared that a good UX team should have ALL of these skills present on the team, I just don’t agree that a single individual should or can posses them.

For myself, I have decided to get better acquainted with the language of visual design, I have asked some friends for resource recommendations, and have put together this amazon wish list.

Also, these lessons were highly recommended:

I know that I will never become an amazing visual designer, but it does not make me any less of a UX designer (who can code none-the-less!).

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4 Responses to "On Being A Generalist"

Great write-up, Alla! You cover a lot of ground and did so in an interesting way. I can dig it.

One thing that has come to mind, as I’ve been mulling over this topic, is that the question of “Is a generalist or specialist better” is a flawed approach to the problem.

The problem, as I see it, is that there are businesses. These businesses need great UX design. They need someone capable of UX design to deliver. The nitty-gritty is, what skills are necessary for the role?

For instance, in my post about this very subject: I approach the problem from the viewpoint of the employer. What type of UX designer do they need to get the job done? If they need someone with a vast array of skills, then a generalist is far better for the business. If the biz needs a UX designer, but already has a visual designer and front-end coder, then someone with a leaner but deeper skill set is going to be better for the business.

Thanks for sharing you point of view. You’re wise and brave to take on the task of learning more about visual design. I ought to do the same with user research! =)


I completely agree with you that the business need dictates the type of UX designer that they will hire. My only concern (especially in the given economy) is that businesses would rather not hire lots of people to do various parts of the job, but rather have a generalist that can wear many hats, and potentially save them money. Additionally, unless a specialized individual is a lifer at a company, I am not sure they would be able to find a job once they leave the very specialized role. Having said that, if people out there are finding work in a specialty and are quite happy, I say more power to them. Personally, I just prefer to stay more of a generalist, and would count it as a bonus if I get the opportunity to dig deep into a specific skill set.

Alla, great summary, and your comments strike a nerve with me (in a good way). I’ve struggled to find a direction in my career because I’ve done it all (marketing, sales, web graphic design, XHTML, CSS, IA, QA, accessibility, usability, WordPress) and now I know where I’d like to focus, it’s very difficult to translate my experience into reasons why I’d be good in a job.

I think it comes down to where you’d like to work. Small companies need people who can wear many hats. Larger companies can tolerate people with more focus. And if you’re independent, well, that’s where it becomes muddy again.

My strategy at the present (after talking to my North Shore Web Geek buddies) is to focus, but make it known that I can do other things too.

Nice meeting you last night, by the way!

Hi Lisa,

It was really great meeting you as well!

I am glad that you have found your focus, as I know many people struggle with that for a long time. Plus, you have many additional skills that will come in handy when needed.

I got myself off focus for about 2 years doing academia, and have only recently re-discovered my absolute love and passion for UX. I am so happy to be doing that again, and after Josh’s talk even know where I want to focus in my own field.

Hope to see you again soon at another event, and have a bit more time to chat :)

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Alla Zollers

I design products and services that just. make. sense.

When products make sense, customers are happy.

If customer are happy, they sign-up, stay on site, engage, share, and buy your product or service.

Happy customers allow companies to profit in both senses of the word.

I provide the following services:

• Heuristic Evaluations
• Discovery Research
• Strategy and Vision Development
• Information Architecture
• User Experience Design
• Usability Testing

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