The (Dangerous) Misnomer of "UX Generalist"
Seasoned, respected practitioners in UX design have made compelling arguments that creating UX generalists may be more critical than creating UX specialists.
As someone who has performed research, business development, coding, visual design, interaction design, motion design, application development, strategic road-mapping, marketing planning and more, I feel I'm not a generalist. Although I've won awards and designed positive experiences that have been largely adopted by users, I'm not a specialist is all of those areas. I know this because I grew up around award-winning design specialists. I come from 60 years of designers from 2 continents. I come from family members who can design packaging, airports or advertising campaigns better than I ever could because each of them individually have spent decades focusing exclusively on those individual domains.
I'm fortunate to have pursued domains of design, but I'm concerned about championing the notion of the ux generalist.
1. Within user experience, "general expertise" is a misnomer.
Aside from the fact that "general" and "expertise" are diametrically opposed in philosophy, the field of a user experience design is too broad and volatile in its growth to assume any one of us could ever accomplish a "general" expertise for more than a brief moment in time. To accomplish just a contemporary professional understanding of HCI, library sciences, visual and communication design, interaction design, modern development technologies, progressive theory in coding, etc would take decades. One could accomplish a "general" understanding earlier, but such a general understanding is not "expertise." Which leads me to my second point. . .
2. No industry has generalists who are as efficient as specialists/experts, and vice versa.
All medical doctors are taught to deliver a baby. Would you prefer a generalist (with 30 births in an ER) or an obstetrician (with 3,000 births) to deliver your baby? Furthermore, if you a hospital director, would staff a hospital with only generalists or only specialists? If you needed heart surgeon, would you prefer a cardiac surgeon or a generalist to perform the task. Would you fault the cardiac surgeon if his awareness of renal pathology was not as an expert in kidney disease pathology? For further proof that generalists and specialists are psychologically different in personality and capability, please attend a local medical school and audit any lab class for at least two sessions (which leads to my next point about education. . .)
3. "Diverse" education is more important than "general" education.
I completely believe that designers should be educated in a variety of domains, including but not limited to coding, visual design, interaction design, research, information architecture and "more." And by "more," I mean at least history, ethics, cognitive psychology, sociology, mental health and wellness, business forecasting, financial modeling, conflict mediation, human relations management, anthropology/ethnography, educational psychology, adult pedagogy models, business administration and strategic change management, environmental design, sustainability, macro-economics and micro-economics. And since a "general" understanding of each of these would typically take at least 2 years to study at respectable universities that grant bachelors degrees, I'm not sure that many people would pursue a 34 year education to become a genuine "general expert" in just the modern domains of experience design. So what is a healthy generalist approach to pursue?
4. We should be "generalists" in the field of "collaboration."
My personal hope is that new graduates of design programs are equipped with the skills to collaborate with others, not replace others. These general collaboration skills are absurdly hard because the specialists we can work with are infinite. And because collaboration is hard, many companies hire what they call unicrons or generalists because they do not wish to pursue the change necessary to create such collaboration. However, the modern leader is she who can align the genius and the expertise of multiple individuals in order to accomplish un-precedented feats that are far from what are "generally" expected. I don't argue this point just because successful companies have proven success in hiring generalists + specialists (GE's Software Center of Excellence, Lenovo, and Apple, just to name a few). I argue this because diversity is the very phenomenon which makes any system stronger.