Specialists and Generalists

Last month I came across someone who described herself as an 'international expert on email management'. As well as making me feel a little old — this job title never existed when I was at school — it also got me thinking about the profound specialisms that we work in nowadays. Our job titles and the jobs themselves are getting increasingly siloed.

Yet at the same time, I often hear from organisations that seem to want to recruit a designer with the breadth of expertise of a Leonardo da Vinci. They want to recruit a genius designer who can create a user experience vision, carry out effective field visits, create personas the design team will believe in, identify the critical tasks for the system, set usability metrics to drive development, create paper prototypes, design and layout the screens so they are both beautiful and easy to use, and with a final flourish, prove it by running a usability test, analysing the results and wowing people with the data.

The need for multidisciplinary design

Here's a simple truth: great design is multidisciplinary. This is recognised by no less an authority than the International Organization for Standardization. The standard ISO 9241-210 describes 6 key principles that will ensure your design is user centred:

  • The design is based upon an explicit understanding of users, tasks and environments.
  • Users are involved throughout design and development.
  • The design is driven and refined by user-centred evaluation.
  • The process is iterative.
  • The design addresses the whole user experience.
  • The design team includes multidisciplinary skills and perspectives.

All of these principles are important, but I want to turn to that final principle: “The design team includes multidisciplinary skills and perspectives.” This clearly contradicts the misconception that great user interface designs emerge from the brain of a single, genius designer. Instead, you need a team with diverse skills and perspectives.

Interestingly, I've found that many companies pride themselves in having what they refer to as multi-disciplinary teams but give no consideration to the roles or to the balance. Their user experience "team" is just an assortment of skills and backgrounds. So what are the appropriate roles in a user experience team?

Roles in a user experience team

Anyone who has worked in the field of user experience will know that there is a dizzying array of job titles. I've looked at various sources including job advertisements, surveys by professional bodies, and I even carried out a poll with user experience people on Twitter. I wrote up my findings as the UX Job Title Generator. It demonstrated that job titles aren't much use in deciding on the skills needed for a UX team.

What about the skills required for a multidisciplinary user experience team? Based on my experience, I'd say these are:

  • Management.
  • Research.
  • Information Architecture.
  • Interaction Design.
  • Visual Design.
  • Technical Writing.
  • Prototyping.

Let's take a look at each of these in turn.

Management

Motto: “Design is so critical it should be on the agenda of every meeting in every single department” — Tom Peters.

Genius designers can manage themselves, but with a multidisciplinary team someone needs to provide leadership, set direction and manage work. Whether he or she gets the job title 'Chief', 'Lead', 'Principal' or 'Head' this is essentially a management role. It's unlikely this person will do many user experience activities, although this person certainly needs to be qualified to review the work of the people on the team. Typically, the day-to-day activities in this role are to plan and schedule work, assemble team members for a project, liaise with stakeholders and manage client expectations.

Research

Motto: “Supposing is good, but finding out is better” — Mark Twain.

Genius designers have an intuitive understanding of their users but the multidisciplinary team needs a user researcher to provide this insight. These people carry out research, both before the product is designed and during design. All user interface designs need to be grounded in these research findings and need to be tested out with the intended user group. Typically, the day-to-day activities in this role are to plan, execute, log, analyse and present data from field visits and usability tests.

Information architect

Motto: “Our understanding of the world is largely determined by our ability to organise information” — Louis Rosenfeld & Peter Morville.

Genius designers just know how their users think about the system but the multidisciplinary team relies on an information architect to provide this knowledge. Information architects peer inside users' heads and understand their mental model of the world. For example, do users think of the domain in terms of objects, tools, subject categories, actions or tasks? Whether you're designing a web site or word processor, there will be content, functions and features that need to be understood, organised, structured and labelled. Typically, the day-to-day activities in this role are to build the conceptual model and to structure, manage, organise and label functions, features and content.

Interaction design

Motto: “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works” — Steve Jobs.

Genius designers are intuitively aware of the best user interface patterns to use for an application. The multidisciplinary team turns to the interaction designer for these ideas. Wizards, Organiser Workspaces, Carousels and Lazy Registration are just a few of the patterns they may call upon. They also understand the grammar of user interface design: when to use a hyperlink versus a button and when to use a check box versus a radio button. And with the increasing use of mobile devices, they know how to devise intuitive interactions to support tasks like scrolling and zooming on small displays. Typically, the day-to-day activities in this role are to define the behaviour of a system and communicate how the user interface will behave.

Visual design

Motto: “The details are not the details. They make the design” — Charles Eames.

The genius designer has a perfect eye for a design that balances beauty and communication. The multidisciplinary team calls upon a visual designer to provide this skill. With the ability to switch between the global design of a page and pore over the fine detail, the visual designer knows what to align with what in an interface and understands how best to use techniques like contrast and proximity to group and segregate items in a display. Typically, the day-to-day activities in this role are to devise grids, lay out pages, choose colour palettes and develop icons.

Technical writing

Motto: “I try to leave out the parts that people skip” — Elmore Leonard.

Along with their visual communication skills, genius designers can write as crisply as Ernest Hemmingway. Multidisciplinary teams turn instead to a technical writer. Technical writers (or copywriters) know how to express complex ideas concisely and are just as comfortable curating hundreds of pages in a web site as they are with writing content for a single page, or even a string of help text on an application form. Typically, the day-to-day activities in this role are to create and edit macro- and micro-copy and to promote concise communication.

Prototyping

Motto: “To pretend, I actually do the thing: I have therefore only pretended to pretend” — Jacques Derrida.

Genius designers have no problem in creating interactive visualisations, demonstrations and prototypes showing how the system will be used. Multidisciplinary design teams turn instead to a prototyping expert. Happy to work with paper in the early stages of design and with electronic tools in the later stages, prototypers bring to life the work of all the other members of the team. The day-to-day activities in this role are to translate ideas into interactions by developing prototypes and simulations.

A useful hiring question

One manager who took our Twitter poll told me: "I find it confusing that not only does everyone I know have different job titles — from UX Designer, to Usability Lead, and my own Senior Usability Engineer — but they all tend to be the same type of job role. Many people applying for roles in my team do not have a clue about usability even though they have been working in the industry for years!" A useful interview question that hiring managers can ask is to show candidates the list of roles above and simply ask: "Which of these roles do you fit?" As well as clearing away the fog that seems to accompany many applications, you can then quiz interviewees on how their skills map to the role they claim to fit. If they can't identify with one of the roles, you know they're probably not suitable for any job in your team.

From genius design to multidisciplinary design

Acknowledged as a brilliant painter, sculptor, architect, scientist, mathematician, inventor, anatomist, cartographer, botanist and writer, Leonardo da Vinci was the prototypical Renaissance man. Your chances of recruiting someone like this are very low. If instead you focus on recruiting a multidisciplinary team with individuals who can tick one of these boxes, you'll get much closer to designing like Leonardo da Vinci.

About the author

David Travis

Dr. David Travis (@userfocus on Twitter) holds a BSc and a PhD in Psychology and he is a Chartered Psychologist. He has worked in the fields of human factors, usability and user experience since 1989 and has published two books on usability. David helps both large firms and start ups connect with their customers and bring business ideas to market. If you like his articles, you'll love his online user experience training course.


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