How To: Adding Depth to User Experience (UX) with Generalists and Hybrids

5 minute read
Stephen Fishman avatar

In Part 1 of this "UX How To" article I explained the families of roles within the user experience discipline; UX Specialists, UX Generalists and Hybrids. The Specialists, from research, strategy, design and front-end development, were covered in detail. Generalists and Hybrids float above and in-between. If UX is a discipline of science and art, Generalists are those who harness the talent within a business context. Hybrids are those who create possibility by successfully merging two thought patterns into one.

Floating Above - UX Generalists

Many of my close colleagues (with whom I studied and practiced) have dramatically influenced me as we navigated together into a view of humanizing business. I would hope that the influence was mutual in this journey towards the business strategy and model of applying the humanities to enterprises..

UX Generalists are typically referred to as producers or directors and their duties, like their titles, vary widely from shop to shop. Project managers sometimes take the place of the generalist, but can quickly lose their footing if a project veers outside of interactive design and development. Very few project managers understand the nuances of the UX roles and how the activities performed and deliverables created by each role weave together to ultimately deliver a high-quality, business-grounded experience.

The best generalists are like conductors of the symphony. This unique ability is highlighted both in Dan Pink's A Whole New Mind and in the 10 Faces of Innovation by Tom Kelley. One of the most overlooked capabilities of generalists is that their ability to abstract does not end at the boundary of their discipline. The very same skill that helps them weave different UX roles, activities and deliverables also helps to make projects profitable and beneficial for both the client and the team alike.

The Inbetweeners - Hybrids

A close colleagues once said to me that he did not want his UX architects doing development work for solutions. Even if they had the skills to do so, he did not want to start a process where their design work would be biased by what was easier to implement rather than what was the most efficacious for the intended users. I understood his concern then, and I still do today, but I have a different perspective. While it is true that some practitioners can be tainted by what they know of the possible, it is also true that they can be uplifted and inspired by it as well.

Students of popular music already know a basic fact: genius emerges from practitioners who figure out a way to fuse multiple genres together. A beautiful illustration of this, pictured below, was created by Reebee Garofalo and is included in Edward Tufte's Visual Explanations. The Computational Media program at Georgia Tech is one of a new breed of university programs where students who want to fuse art and technology together can get  their creative-geek on. Daniel Chase Hooper, a recent graduate of the program, has shown the promise of the Hybrid that I am referring to.


Using skills from several disciplines including (interaction designer, software engineer, marketing and video production), Daniel created a completely new way to edit text on the iPad and then posted a clever video on YouTube that ultimately helped him land a post-graduation job working as a developer at Apple.

Learning Opportunities

An interesting footnote to this anecdote is that Daniel did not put his creation into the app store. Two different developers launched weak implementations -- one requires an unlocked iPad and the other only functions in its own app. Daniel's video got picked up by so many media outlets that there is little doubt his innovation will be incorporated into the next version of iOS.

On the Shoulders of Giants & Under the Thumb of the Man

To be exceptional within almost any discipline requires a mix of study and practice. Study provides a basis for understanding and execution, while practice provides the nuance of context through experiential learning. Neither study nor experience alone will make you any good at user experience -- it is only through combining them and continuing each of them as your career progresses that you will keep growing within the field.

For those getting started in UX, study should include foundational books and articles. I've included a list of some of my favorites, each of which contains a set of fundamental building blocks that will help you become a UX professional grounded in a mix of cognitive science and best practices:

For those looking to practice the concepts and activities described in these books, it's a little more complicated than just picking one and getting started. Different enterprises have different ideas and appetites for user experience. My best advice here for those who are just getting started, is to lead with the science and economics; UX done right has positive ROI and helps to increase the likelihood of both user adoption and the achievement of business goals. Who can argue with that?

Editor's Note: Here's part 1 of Stephen's UX  How-to. For more of his insights on user experience, check out: UX is Destroying the World! Will UX Come to the Rescue?

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