Defending Specialization: Strengthening Our Craft

Have you been asked to play dual roles at work?
Push back.

  By  Kelly Moran  Principal Experience Researcher projekt202

By Kelly Moran
Principal Experience Researcher
projekt202

There’s a discussion that comes up surrounding the broadening of skill sets, which on its own is a really great thing (there’s a nicely balanced view here, for example). This tends, however, to balloon up into the notion that people who do X will now also need to do Y to continue being, or to become, successful.

The death of specialization is continuously being announced. Sit around the neighborhood of UX on Twitter for 45 minutes to find long chains of why everyone needs to do everything if they expect to remain valued employees, thriving departments, or competitive companies. Prime targets are designers who must now also code (the coveted “unicorn,” as many in the industry have dubbed one with this combo) and designers who must also perform* the research role. This happens for a lot of roles, and I sympathize heavily with designers getting the brunt of this “join or die” mandate on their skill sets.

[*With the notion of performing a role, I couldn’t resist a quick nod to the more recent concept of “UX theatre,” or the outward appearance of doing good, user-focused work while actually, well, not.]

The push to claim mastery, or even remarkable competency, of an ever-expanding list of skills is unrealistic, disingenuous, and harmful.

I work essentially as a researcher. The title is pretty fluid, and we can talk about that another time, but for now let’s just call me a researcher, OK? In the course of getting my job done, I am in constant contact with people who essentially work as designers. I absorb quite a bit from this proximity; I can even perform a variety of design functions. But I work with such fine, talented, conscientious designers that I find it hard to loop myself in under the same description. They worked hard to build up their skills; just because I can do “design thinking” doesn’t mean I tell people I’m a designer. There are nuances involved I’m not even aware of.

chef.jpg
I respect the craft of design too much to think familiarity and competence are the same. Knowing how to make spaghetti does not make me a gourmet chef.

Respect of Craft

Skill sets are not obtained easily. Every skill we acquire must go through a process of exposure, education, and enhancement. Our mastery of them builds only over time. Jumping straight from exposure to widespread use means both eliminating the building elements that would otherwise have contributed to a sturdy foundation, and forgoing the experience in application that would have provided flexibility.

The ethics applied to each craft are often one of the first blocks to get knocked out. Respecting crafts is the first step to lifting them up and making them valuable, by which I mean useful as well as safe.

Consider what Anders Toxboe notes in his article, “The Power and Danger of Persuasive Design” :

The danger of persuasive design lies in its power and the fact that it’s taken powerful and complex psychological concepts and distilled them into easily digestible bits.
—  Anders Toxboe

This in no way should be taken as an endorsement of gate-keeping — a practice that actively keeps people out of a profession and jealously guards the essential skills as trade secrets. I want to work in an inclusive environment where anyone who has the passion can be provided the opportunity to learn the skills necessary to do the job.

astronaut.jpg

However, the idea that one can easily “wear the hat” of whatever role suits them, or their boss, at any given moment is frankly a little childish. Putting on a plastic helmet does not really make one an astronaut (though, no, I would not say that to an actual child playing astronaut).

Becoming an X, whatever that X is, takes time. And persistence. And, critically, mentorship from Xs who’ve spent lots and lots of time being an X.

Exceptionality and Overextension

Is it possible for someone to be good at two things? Of course it is. Please don’t respond to me with lists of people who know how do both X and Y and are absolute phenoms at both.

Exceptional people exist — I work with some — but Prince having been not only a beloved singer and also an accomplished guitarist, drummer, etc. does not mean all the other singers must either learn several instruments or hang their heads in shame/never play another concert/go work at Starbucks instead. Nobody listens to Jimmy Page masterfully playing the guitar and thinks, He needs to learn how to sing, too. 

The low-hanging fruit here is to tell you that we make the most beautiful music when we all play together.

To those of you who are among the exceptional: Well done.

Exceptionality aside, there is an argument that just because a person can do many different things, it does not follow that he or she should do them all at the same time.

 There is always an exception ...

There is always an exception ...

Talking with some of our designers and researchers who identify with both roles (and do them both well), I often hear that “the hats are different.” They don’t like being asked to play both researcher and designer on the same project. They are different, if complementary, mindsets which call for particular perspectives that come from different places.

You lose objectivity when you try to play all the roles. Aren’t we always talking about getting into the mindset of the customers and acknowledging that their mindset is not our mindset? Apply some of that respectful thinking to our crafts.

How do we demonstrate our respect of customers? We listen to them. We learn from them. And, ideally, we include them. Listen to your colleagues from other crafts. Listening helps us know what’s important. By all means, learn from them. Exposure to other skills helps you craft the most valuable version of your work. Whenever possible, include those who specialize in other crafts, because your work fits into a larger picture. You’d want the doctor treating your heart condition to be a cardiovascular specialist, but you’d expect an understanding of how the heart fits into the body as a whole.

Find Strength in Your Craft

I’ve used the term "craft" throughout this article. Research, design, and development are crafts. Google’s dictionary defines craft as “an activity involving skill in making things by hand.” The “by hand” part is really essential. These aren’t automated processes — though there is much discussion possible around that assertion.

The etymology of the word "craft" includes a root for “strength.” I love that. A craft is a strength. Sure, you may have other abilities, but are they your strength? You can’t flex all your muscles at the same time, you know; you’d tear yourself apart.

A wise thing to keep in mind.

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My thanks to Amy Santee, Julius Horvath, Jeff Jones and Omar Ahmad for their insights and suggestions on early drafts of this article.

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Why bother with generative research anyway? What does watching people add to our ability to offer valuable services? Read here for how observation leads to better understanding.


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