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Exploring the difference between specialists and generalists.

Laura McKay14/08/2018User Researchalt

As a UX researcher who doesn't have a specific qualification in research, I’ve been doing some soul searching- are there perks to being a generalist rather than a specialist when it comes to User Research? 

In this article, I explore my education and career journey, the concept of 'T and I shaped people' (those who have broad skills and knowledge compared to someone with expertise in a specific area) Generalists and Specialists, and how the different departments at hedgehog lab define themselves.

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Hard at work... 

(TL;DR: There is a place for I and T-shaped professionals at hedgehog lab, time changes people and I now see Generalism as a strength...)


Becoming the hedgehog.


Before meeting with our Chief Design Officer Ray for the first time during an interview for the User Experience Researcher internship back in 2017, I had never heard the expression ‘Strong Generalist’ - never mind used it to describe myself. Instead, I was talking about the different areas I have explored through my Bachelor and Master's degrees, and the 2 years of work experience I gained after graduation. 

I was voicing my concerns about not having substantial research experience (note to everyone - maybe don't do this in an interview for a research position!) when, recognising the self-depreciation in my words, Ray put my mind at ease. He flipped the perspective I had held of myself for many years by pointing out there is strength in being a Generalist. Being able to look at a problem or subject from a variety of perspectives allows for more flexibility.


The power of ‘Multidisciplinary’.


I am forever an advocate for the benefits of being multidisciplinary in skill as well as a way of working - multidisciplinary to me feels more relatable to being a Generalist.

While studying for my Masters in Multidisciplinary Innovation (MDI) at Northumbria University, we had exposure to different disciplines and team working. This proved to be one of the most powerful learning experiences I have ever had during my education.

In MDI, we had ‘practical involvement in multiple aspects of innovation and design-led co-creation. These include project scoping and planning, creative research and insight development, ideation and concept refinement, strategy development and communication, value definition, and pitching and reporting to clients.’ 


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hedgehog lab's wonderful UX Research Team 

It wasn’t just the projects or the clients; it was whom I was working with that helped me develop professionally the most. Learning to navigate complex group dynamics spanning not only disciplines like business, computer science and marketing, but also different personalities and cultures increased the scope of my personal and professional experience; broadening my skills by expanding my knowledge of disciplines I hadn't been exposed to before.

The Self and Community Module, which was part of my MDI studies, introduced me to the theory of T/I, and E shaped people.

In HRZone's words: "A T-shaped person is someone with t-shaped skills. The concept of T-shaped skills was described by David Guest in 1991, but was popularised by Tim Brown, CEO of design firm IDEO, when describing the type of people he wanted to work for his organisation."

Fast forward to my role here at hedgehog lab, I see how useful it is for us all to have at least a basic understanding of how each department works (even if we don't possess the skills ourselves). This helps increase empathy and ensures we hold more realistic expectations of each other.


The difference between Generalists and T-shaped/Hybrid professionals.


Since 1991, the conversation surrounding T-shaped people has increased, developing both vocabulary and application. Peter Boersma, a UX Strategist from the Netherlands, described the six core disciplines of User Experience in a T-Model. Leanne Byrom, a User Experience Practitioner, breaks this down further in an excellent blog article.

This first diagram shows a UX ‘Generalist’. This person has a broad understanding of all of the disciplines to varying degrees.

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A UX Generalist. Image by CrazyEgg.

 This second diagram depicts an example of a ‘Specialist’ within UX; they have awareness but not a deep understanding of the other disciplines and focus in one area. Byrom theories that many UX professionals start out in their careers as a specialist in a specific area.

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A UX Specialist. Image by CrazyEgg.

The final diagram features a T-shaped UX professional, named by Boersma as a ‘Hybrid’ - this is a person who is a mixture of a Specialist and Generalist; they have a broad knowledge of all the disciplines and deep knowledge of one or more disciplines. She states people identifying as a ‘Hybrid’ are likely to have been working in their field for a long time. 

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A T-shaped UX professional - or Hybrid.  Image by CrazyEgg.


How things work in the lab.


When I first started work at hedgehog lab, I thought everyone was a specialist in their departments. Developers being experts in working magic with letters, symbols and numbers, the Project Managers being experts in navigating the complexity and unpredictability that each project brings, I could go on. However, as I got to know people I realised many peoples skills and passions span beyond their job title. 

As a researcher I felt inclined to dive deeper. To ensure to challenge my assumptions with real data (which is what the UXR team preach constantly), I created a short survey asking my fellow hedgehogs 4 simple questions: their department, which they identified with more (Generalist/Specialist) and why, and if they had always felt they were one or the other.

Out of the 20 respondents, the departments break down as follows:

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 [Note: I spelt Engineering wrong. Thanks dyslexia]

Respondents who selected 'Other' included a member of staff in Engineering and another in Delivery.

In total, 16 hedgehogs describe themselves as Generalists while only 4 as Specialists; out of those who chose Specialists, 3 were engineers (as I had loosely hypothesised before conducting this survey).

One of the main reasons the hedgehogs described themselves as Generalists was because their job required them to do different tasks. "As I am on several projects," answered one hedgehog, "I have to apply my knowledge over them all. I can not just specialise and devote my focus to one subject"

Another was due to their interests spanning different areas. As one respondent put it: "I don’t like to be a ‘one-trick pony’ as they say. I like to be varied in the skills and areas that I do."

Something summed up by one Engineer, who put simply: "Specialist gets boring very quickly!"

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Three of our Engineering Team considered themselves to be specialists.

Two people mentioned that, since joining hedgehog lab, they had moved into a more general role. "Because I started as a specialist, then [grew] old and acquired many specialisms," responded one such hedgehog, "I would define myself as a T-shaped professional: Deep specialist knowledge, in several domains, awareness of specialisms adjacent and different from my own."

I feel the environment and role you go into inevitably makes you adapt as a professional, something which this anonymous marketing hedgehog agreed with. They explained: "I think there are a number of areas of marketing that you can specialise in, but in a department of our size, it isn't practical to be a specialist given company needs.

"All of my marketing experience has been picked up in an environment where you have to balance many plates, and there's never been time to specialise in one specific area. It also forces you to learn things yourself, but that is probably another reason you can't call yourself a specialist."

Asking if the self-identified Generalists had always identified this way was split down the middle; "Yes, I feel like its best to keep an overview of everything that's going on. Diving too deep into something might blind you from the bigger picture." This statement I agree with as a Generalist myself, I think sometimes having very in-depth knowledge about a particular subject can constrain creative thinking.

Another responded that they had always felt this way regardless of starting work here. Asked if they had always adopted Generalist characteristics, one participant answered: "Pretty much! Loads has changed since I started at hedgehog lab, but I think I've always been a generalist and probably will be for the foreseeable future."

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There are plenty of different personalities in our team!

On the flipside, a member of the Growth team said working here had helped them become more of a Generalist. This Growth-hog replied: "Yep - I've always felt this way anyway, and while working at hedgehog has allowed me the opportunity to pick up more new disciplines/practices/tasks of marketing, I think it's made me more of a generalist rather than more of a specialist in any area."

Those who had changed said this had happened over time: "No, I started as a very narrow specialist, then I grew older," claimed one. Another added: "No, I used to see myself as a specialist with a select set of skills, but over time I’ve become a generalist." This echoes the Byrom theory I mentioned earlier.

The hedgehogs who feel they are Specialists said they had always been that way; "I didn't 'choose' it really, just what I'm best at. The things I'd like to learn/develop over the coming months are what would make me a generalist I think." Another said their area required a specific skill set. Passion for an area was also a clear reason; "I love working with iOS and all the stuff related to it."


We’re all the same.


Hearing most of my colleagues describe themselves as Generalists with not a hint of self-deprecation has made me feel a lot better about my own traits and increased my understanding of how valuable a Generalist can be to a company. The reason I haven't developed a specialism is that I'm just too interested in learning different things. I would, however, like to work towards getting particularly awesome in my area of User Experience Research.

It doesn't matter if you're a Specialist or a Generalist, whether your skills lie in one area or are spread over a dozen; at hedgehog lab, as long as you are passionate, proactive and direct your energy to doing the best job you can that's all that matters.



Are you a specialist or a generalist? Let us know how you see yourself over on Twitter, @LauraEMcKay & @hedgehoglab.