Compartmentalists, Specialists, and Generalists

Jared Spool just posted an interesting article on the ideal makeup of a UX team . He makes a useful distinction between a specialist and a compartmentalist:

While the former is about having the majority of your experience in a single discipline, the latter is about only having experience in that discipline… . A compartmentalist isolates themselves from the other disciplines around them, not really learning what they do or how they do it. Compartmentalism is bad for teams, because it means you have to have enough work to keep that individual busy within that discipline, and if needs shift or emergencies crop up, their value is dramatically diminished.

I would also add that a compartmentalist tends to make decisions that cause problems for other team members—the compartmentalized user researcher makes design recommendations that don’t meet the needs the business analyst identified previously; the designer designs something that will take $5 million to implement; the HTML coder who transforms those ultra-accessible semantic forms into screen-reader nightmares for the blind.

So I agree with Spool that compartmentalism is bad. But he also says that the main reason to choose a specialist over a generalist is economic; if a specialist is available and affordable, you would hire a specialist, according to the article. But aren’t there times when specialization is a negative for the project? Even if I could afford a specialist HTML coder, business analyst, interaction designer, and user researcher… isn’t there some inherent value in having the same person play one or more of those roles, depending on project size, complexity, or a host of other factors?

I don’t think economics is the only factor.

posted by Ted Boren on Monday, Nov 17, 2008
tagged with specialization, design, management