What's Better for Your Tech? UX Specialists or Generalists?

Erica Warhaftig
Erica Warhaftig
VP of Strategy and User Experience
Published Mar 09, 2021

How your organization can take advantage of UX specialists and generalists to create user-friendly products.

User Experience (UX) is a relatively young field. (Is it still fair to say that? I think yes, but I’m also convinced that 1990 was only 10 years ago.) When I first entered the field, UX was a small community of scrappy people who were mostly self-taught and transitioning from other roles. This community spent just as much time explaining what UX was and why it was valuable as we did actually doing the work. Today, UX is a fully established discipline with so much available education and rigor, which has done so much to elevate the practice.

With that growth and rigor, additional UX specialist roles have developed within the field even as so many organizations make magic happen with just a couple of people on their team. Let’s look at how User Experience has diversified as it’s grown, and how UX teams can think strategically about the right way to grow their teams.

UX Specialist Roles

There are several specialties within the UX field. 

These are just a few of the many ways that you can divide the field of User Experience. Despite UX encompassing all of these different areas, it is not at all uncommon for a UX department to have only one or two people, and for those people to have titles such as UI/UX Designer and for those individuals to be generalists. 

Start With Generalists

The title UI/UX Designer feels a little like someone calling themselves a lawyer-nurse or a pilot-fireman. It’s two jobs in one. There are certainly people who can do both, and I’ve had the pleasure of working with people who can do both very well. But it’s important to remember that you’re asking a lot when you ask someone to do both at the same time. 

It makes sense for companies to want a UI/UX unicorn, especially smaller organizations where everyone has to flex and grow to get the work done. Even as a company starts to scale, generalists are essential because they can consult on multiple aspects of the work and jump in to cover gaps.

The challenge with a generalist role is that you often have to make trade-offs between the different specialties that exist within the UX field. Let’s take the creation of a form as an example. In keeping with the minimal design trend, it’s pretty common these days to see form fields that don’t have an explicit label. Instead, the form will use field instructions to tell the user what type of data should go in the field. Those field instructions go away when the user enters data into the field. This is a great pattern from a visual design perspective because it removes a lot of clutter from the screen. However, it is less desirable from a UX perspective because it places the burden on the user to remember the field label once they’ve entered data. It’s even more problematic for an accessibility specialist because this pattern often doesn’t work well with screen readers. 

If one person is responsible for visual design, UX design, and accessibility, they’re likely going to prioritize their most familiar and practiced discipline. In this case, a visual designer who is covering the UX would likely choose the minimal (yet harder to use) version, while an accessibility specialist would likely choose the traditional field label pattern that would make the design look and feel dated. When you have specialists who can think about the nuances of their own discipline, and advocate for them, it forces a higher standard of collaboration and can result in truly creative solutions.

That is an expected part of any collaborative process, including the UX process, but I have found that you arrive at the best solutions when a different person can strongly advocate for each viewpoint, and there’s a good process for choosing among the different options presented. If one person is responsible for all facets of UX, it’s hard for them to remain truly objective, and you can end up with a product that favors one discipline over the other.

Using Generalists Effectively

If your organization uses generalists, there are several processes you can implement to make life easier for your UI/UX designers and to ultimately create a better product. First, carefully consider the strengths of your UI/UX designers. If your UI/UX Designer has stronger UX skills, their tendency will be to favor the UX portion of the project. This could lead to a product that is highly usable, but a bit of a snooze. When you recognize this upfront, you can help remind your team to push themselves in specific areas and seek out support when necessary.

Another process that can help is a more thorough review process. Give your generalist (and others on the team, where possible) time to put themselves into each mindset (UX and UI) and review the work from that lens. This means building more review time into projects to allow them to review each piece twice, but it will result in a more balanced solution.

Moving to UX Specialists

As your team grows, consider incorporating more specialists. Specialized roles give people on your team the luxury to dive deep into one area. It is easier for them to become experts in a specific aspect of the process and keep up with new research and trends. This expertise will result in a more polished product that synthesizes the strengths of multiple people.

As you consider how to grow your organization, the type of projects you focus on can be a helpful guide to use when determining when and how to diversify your team. For example, if your products are subject to ADA compliance, adding an Accessibility Specialist to your team might be a good choice. For a mobile app, hiring a UX Architect that specializes in mobile will help ensure that you’re staying on top of the latest OS trends and guidelines. In B2C industries, a User Research specialist can be especially helpful for connecting with your customers and understanding how to best meet their needs.

Using Specialists Effectively

As an organization begins to incorporate more specialists, it’s important to remember that communication becomes more essential than ever. Working collaboratively with all of the project members will allow each person to advocate for their role, and help ensure that you minimize rework and end up with a cohesive and well-rounded product.

There are many nuances to the world of User Experience, and both generalists and specialists are invaluable members of the community. I hope this has helped to show how and when it is most useful to engage with each, and how to be most successful with any team makeup. If you’re looking for more guidance on building a successful UX team, or you need a partner to help solve complex UX problems, please reach out. We love this work and we’re here to help.