Ask The Experts is a series in which we ask design leaders from our community common questions from UX professionals or those seeking a career in UX. This month we're covering career specialization.
What advice would you give a designer who is curious about whether or not they should choose a path of specialization or pursue more of a UX generalist path?
My short answer is that a designer should ideally take both paths. You can do well in either one, but you will magnify your impact if you have experiences in both.
I see general and specialty design paths as two perpendicular, but related dimensions: the general path defines breadth, and the specialty path depth of a designer’s expertise. Over time, a seasoned designer should walk down both dimensions far enough to cover a bigger area of design, thus increasing skill versatility and overall value as a UX professional. When the market landscape renders specific domains or specialties obsolete, you always have experiences gathered along the general design path and be ready to go down another more relevant specialty path. If possible, try to align the projects you take on with your interests, whatever path you are on. Your interests can carry you further when you run into roadblocks.
On the general path, the design/research skills such as design patterns, research principles and methods represent the core abilities and toolbox for a designer. For example, creating a visual and interaction language in a design system can be very effective in establishing consistency and a baseline UI quality; establishing a user research enablement program to keep user feedback and expectations front and center in product teams can solve many problems, foster user centered culture in product teams, and gain good rapport with customers.
On the specialty path, acquiring specific domain knowledge to create compelling user experiences can be both challenging and rewarding. I cannot emphasize enough the importance for a designer to be comfortable with and fast in ramping up to a specialty (and sometimes very technical) domain. With a basic understanding of the domain, you may find it very enlightening to work with users to understand their specific problems and play a big part in creating solutions that improve their lives. In solving these problems, you also get to verify what you’ve gathered along the general path, and add new lessons learned to it. With a solid command of enough specialty domains in an enterprise, you obtain powerful insights that put you in a good position to devise effective user experience strategies across the entire organization or company."
Huifang Wang, Senior Manager of User Experience Design
There's a need for both generalist and specialized UXers. You'll wear more hats at smaller companies or agencies — you may be responsible for everything, including user research, UX writing, UX strategy, interaction design, information architecture, and visual design. On larger teams, you'll find more specialized roles because they improve efficiency and quality of work.
All designers should understand every UX role, and being a generalist is an excellent way to gain exposure as long as you have mentors that can guide you. Being a generalist can also help you discover if there's a subspecialty that you enjoy more. But if you enjoy all aspects of UX, you may want to stay as a generalist most of your career.
If you're confident that you enjoy a specific UX role, then go for it! If you don't understand some other UX roles, it's vital to learn about those to know how to best work together. You can set up peer mentorship relationships (start with a 1:1 meeting), find articles/books/podcasts, or attend events (like those by the Triangle UXPA)."
Andrew Wirtanen, Senior Product Designer
I work in a space in which HW, SW and service UX are all in play across a range of product domains. We look for design and research generalists, but recognize each team member has unique experiences and leanings. Specialization occurs with domain assignments, which allow people to either develop depth or grow new expertise. My best advice is to always ensure you are interested & challenged. Don’t get complacent. Beyond that, I caution towards specializing too narrowly for too long in a given focus. You don’t want to pigeonhole your experiences or your perspective. It is a positive to be known for specific strengths, but you’ll want to convey you can apply those in new directions."
Aaron Stewart, Director Next UX & UX Research
I think this kind of "depth or breadth" question has particular relevance to the design field. I find so often that inspiration and creativity come from cross-fertilization between different areas of experience, expertise, and application that I'm always drawn to opportunities that give me more varied experience. Time and again I've seen that my approaches and solutions are informed by the intersection of diverse realms, thus I fear specialization would narrow my view too much, limiting my creative approach to problem-solving. There are certainly benefits to specialization, such as the ability to refine and improve, but that can also quickly become a comfortable rut. In the end, a question such as this is always a personal choice; my personal preference is for variety." Randy Early, Experience Manager
There is a popular adage to “do what you love, the money will follow.” While it is debated by some as to how good this advice is in choosing a career, it still applies to our scenario of offering advice to a UX generalist. While some love every aspect of our jobs, many often gravitate to a specialty, in our case maybe research, information architect, or UX writing. Why not specialize in the aspect of User Experience that brings the most joy or satisfaction, unless the opportunity to work a multidisciplinary role, taking on different UX roles is an enjoyable challenge?
Taking a pragmatic approach, on the other hand, choosing to specialize over remaining a generalist, could impact job and career opportunities. As in most fields, specializing will usually bring increased compensation, commensurate with the training and experience the specialist can provide. The choice will likely also have an impact on the type of organization and industry jobs will be found. While there are many opportunities for generalists, most organizations don’t have full-time needs for UX specialists, and those that do tend to be larger, or in specialized organizations, such as digital agencies or UX consultants.
In the end, as so often occurs in life, there is no “right answer.” The best choice factors in what the designer enjoys most about the work they do, as well as taking the work environment into consideration.”
David Minton, Managing Partner