one man band
PHOTO: Steven Depolo

“I'm working on a job posting for a UX writer,” a director of product design posted to LinkedIn. “I want this person to know Sketch and be able to design low-fidelity prototypes. I want this person to be comfortable coordinating and synthesizing user interviews and onsite visits. Realistic? This person needs to have experience writing for interfaces on the functional (UI) side and on the product marketing side. Is it common for these to intersect?”

He later added, “My thinking is that someone with a journalism background would be good on the writing and research side, and whiteboarding as low-fidelity prototyping would be good. I'd prefer to hire an ambitious generalist, someone with a strong skill set in writing and a secondary skill using Sketch. As a visual communication tool, Sketch isn't difficult to learn.”

He wasn’t done. “Ambition and an entrepreneurial spirit triumphs [over] experience and specialization any day.”

Is This an Awesome Job?

His post was met mostly with disagreement, his request was deemed unreasonable and not realistic. Journalistic interviews in pursuit of facts for a story aren’t the same as the user research done within user-centered design. And worse, he was looking for a recent graduate, preferably of journalism school, who, despite UX research and UX design not being a part of that education, would magically find themselves knowledgeable about and quite skilled at both (and so much more).

He started out asking if this combined job idea was reasonable, but disagreed strongly with everybody who told him it was not. It appears he wasn’t really looking for advice but mostly hoping to get support. The people who found him or his job proposal awesome were hungry and unemployed, folks who ultimately wanted to believe there’s an entry level job out there for them.

When every UX veteran responding to your question says this is a bad idea, but unemployed, hungry newbies love it, you might want to pay some attention to the experienced experts who are sure you are going in the wrong direction.

This “awesome job” supports the myths that UX work is easy to pick up and easy to do. Those who believe that whiteboarding UX designs is easy, no talent or experience required, seem to mostly believe you need the skill of drawing with markers, completely missing what really goes into interaction design.

Non-UX roles love to believe these things, those new to UX hope they are true, and those experienced in UX know that these are dangerous fallacies.

Related Article: User Experience Design Is a Specialty: Treat it as Such

This Worker Is Being Set Up to Fail

Proficiency with a tool doesn’t mean anyone has the talent required to design well. Someone who is good at using Photoshop might not be a great artist, someone using Axure might build prototypes well but could still be poor at UX design. Give someone with no musical talent a piano and you won't get Chopin.

Ambitious doesn't mean you're good at something. It means you are hungry to learn, grow and excel, which would describe most of us in creative jobs. Assigning UX work to those without talent or skill in UX tasks often leads to poor user experiences, poor corporate culture, poor customer satisfaction and a downward cycle of all of these.

This job will go to some young recent grad who is sure that they can do all these things or will try to learn, in an effort to make this hiring manager happy. If they do flawed UX research, poor UX designs, or their writing isn’t great yet, what will happen next? Chances are they will be let go and hear that they just weren’t ambitious enough rather than hearing that this was an impossible job that few, especially those right out of school, could do well.

This hiring manager is poised to break someone. He might also “break UX,” since his company might later say, “Hey, we tried to do UX. We hired a fresh, young, hungry person but UX didn’t work out for us.” We always hope companies are increasing their UX maturity rather than finding more reasons to believe “UX doesn’t work for us.”

Related Article: Predicting the New Skills We'll Need for Work Requires a Crystal Ball

The Logical Fallacy of the False Choice

This hiring manager claims he prefers ambition and spirit over experience and specialization. This type of sentiment circles LinkedIn now and then, but where in our lives do we really mean this? Do we want the ambitious dentist who lacks experience and specialization?

Additionally, who said we can’t hire for all of the traits we want in a worker? Why can’t we look for "ambitious go-getters" who also have talent, skill and experience? You can get all without sacrificing any.

Related Article: Do You Need a Short-Order Cook or an Interface Scientist?

T-Shaped vs. Jack of all Trades

It would be way more reasonable to look for T-shaped skills. In this case, the worker might have UX writing as the “long bar of the T” and then “using Sketch” among the skills in the “shorter bar of the T,” without expecting UX research or design. When we use the T-shaped model, we set different expectations for the job and the worker. Here, we mostly expect someone skilled, talented and possibly experienced with UX writing. We have lower expectations for the shorter bar of the T.

When we want a Jack of all trades or unicorn, hiring managers normally expect expert-level work in each area. They don’t expect an amazing UX practitioner, but a somewhat mediocre visual designer. They don’t expect a great coder, but a so-so UX designer. The expectation in unicorn-land is typically that someone is deeply talented and experienced in all areas. And that’s why it’s called a unicorn, a mythical creature that likely does not exist. People are so rarely amazing at so many fundamentally different jobs.

Consider being fantastically T-shaped. Or consider being a UX Fox or Hedgehog, two interesting and realistic animal terms that should catch on more.

Managers: hire the T-shaped foxes and hedgehogs, and set appropriate expectations for your workers’ abilities to level up in each area. Design a job that can be challenging, but has realistic expectations and can be done by the level of person you intend to hire. Not everybody will achieve mastery in each area, and it’s best to set reasonable expectations and play to strengths.