If you entered the UX industry in the mid to late ‘90s, you probably did a little bit of everything, which helped you get through some of the lean times. However, as UX eventually moved into the enterprise, UX generalists began to disappear and you had to choose a side: I’m an information architect; I’m a user researcher; I’m an interaction designer; I’m a developer, etc.
But over the past few years we’ve seen the success stories of how small groups of designers and developers have quickly launched complicated apps and sites. At the same time, the field of user experience has evolved to the point that designing an experience is not tied to a specific discipline. User experience professionals all share a common skill—the ability to design experiences—and the common practice of user-centered design. Design legend Khoi Vinh refers to this as a “move back to generalists,” but I prefer the term “T-shaped people” coined by Tim Brown, the CEO of IDEO (see Figure 1).
A T-shaped person has a strong, deep, vertical skillset in a single discipline, as well as a broad, shallow set of skills in related disciplines. A good example of this is an expert visual designer who can quickly build a prototype in HTML and has a budding appreciation for the basics of interaction design. When you have a designer like that, you can find opportunities to deploy them in interesting ways beyond their primary area of expertise: as a rapid prototyper for testing support, as a liaison to your front-end development group, or as a sole practitioner on small site updates.
The rise of agile development is making someone like my fictional visual designer highly valued. Agile teams aren’t typically set up for multiple UX designers (to be honest, they don’t always seem to be set up for UX at all, but that’s a different article). Multiple UX practitioners on an agile team add complexity and headcount. While there are many enterprises that will support a full UX team on an agile project, you may find that if your UXers are specialists, they will be underutilized from sprint to sprint. In many organizations with agile teams, using a T-shaped person who can reach out to a UX specialist when necessary is more sustainable.
Developing a Cross-Training Program
At Walmart.com, we turned to T-shaped people to address a critical shortage of interaction designers. Too often, we just threw these people into the fray and tried to support them as best we could. But we have also taken a more deliberate approach. Several years ago, we developed an information architect training program, and the graduates became some of our most highly-valued employees. More recently, we’ve begun working on a program that guides the UX professional on the journey from specialist to T-shaped person.
To be effective, T-shaped training should emphasize hands-on experience—think 70 percent hands-on and 30 percent exposure and education. We’ve approached both ends at the same time. We’ve asked writers and designers to do interaction design on projects solely based on need, and we’ve rolled out more formal training and mentoring. Our cross-training efforts are still a work in progress, but here are five steps that you should consider if you launch a cross-training program of your own.
STEP 1: Find Your Teachers
Identify key discipline “masters” within your organization who also have an aptitude for teaching and delegating. This second part is important. We all know people who are great at a particular discipline but have absolutely no facility for delegation and are much happier just doing the work themselves. Those people may not make the best teachers because if they don’t have the patience to delegate, they won’t have the patience to keep explaining a concept until it finally sinks in.
Look for the person who is a great designer and is great at leading teams. If people want to work with that person and fight to get on a project with them, chances are they’ll make a good teacher. Look for the designers who clearly feel empathy for the people they design for—they’ll show the same sort of empathy for their students and will find a way to pass on knowledge.
While you can rely on these masters for initial, structured training (for instance, providing a four-hour workshop on the basics of typography), most of your generalists’ growth will come from project work. However, it’s not enough to turn your budding T-shaped people loose on a project and expect them to figure it out. They’ll need careful mentoring and clear goals. You’ll need to spell out how to move from novice to intermediate on a particular skill, and provide concrete examples of what intermediate looks like. Your master practitioners will be able to help with this through mentoring and work reviews.
STEP 2: Pick the Right People
Our job as leaders and managers is to ensure that we don’t develop “jack of all trades, master of none” UXers. There is still room and need for deep expertise, and your candidate should be deep in one discipline before you commit time and energy to making them more T-shaped.
Good candidates need to be curious self-starters. While they probably learned their primary discipline in school or through a formal training program, many of their new skills will be acquired either on the job or through self-directed training. They also need to express interest. There’s no point in forcing someone who is perfectly happy practicing their own discipline down a path they’re not interested in taking; you will just make them feel unsuccessful. Look for the person who is always trying out a new tool or sending out links to interesting articles to the UX group.
Humility is also a useful quality in candidates. They need to be able to know when they have reached the boundaries of their T-shapeness. In other words, they need to know what they don’t know. The last thing you want is to have someone get into an awkward situation because they didn’t know they were in over their head.
STEP 3: Define a Structure
Simply training people isn’t enough. You need to connect the training to their careers and their personal growth. Does your company have an independent development plan program in place? If it does, piggyback on that and use it to further your employees’ own career goals with cross-discipline training. If it doesn’t, find a way of measuring and tracking progress.
For example, pick a skill that is associated with a discipline. For the discipline of interaction design, that might be the ability to capture business processes in flows. Work with the employee wanting to acquire interaction design skills by rating them on the aforementioned skill on a scale from one to ten. Then, figure out what it would take to bump that skill up a level. Do you ask the employee to flow out some existing processes? Do you have her work on the flow for her next project? Then, when she gets to the level you specified, think about what it would take to move her up one more level.
Do you have a job description that’s aligned with the new skill(s) being taught? If you do, and if it’s good, you probably have the material for the exercise above. If you don’t, or if it’s bad, take some time to think about what a beginner, intermediate, and advanced practitioner in a discipline can do. Also, do you have criteria for job switching? If you don’t, start to think about what will happen when one of your well-trained writers wants to become an IA officially.
You don’t have to get all of this in place before you start your training program, but when employees begin asking career development questions, you’ll want to have some part of a structured environment in place.
STEP 4: Follow the Med School Model
Your employees will need to see one, then do one, and eventually they’ll be able to teach one.
But when it comes to “doing one,” you need to make sure that your employee is working in a place where failure is not catastrophic. Failing is good, and failing fast is better, but only if failure doesn’t destroy your employee’s confidence.
Recoverable failure is possible if the failure isn’t public, is not embarrassing, and if you choose a task that is not tightly coupled to critical project work. The obvious place to start is an internal initiative such as an intranet or a non-critical business tool, but a project with forgiving timelines and friendly stakeholders is also a good candidate. Regardless, pick something that is challenging.
STEP 5: Repeat
Repeat the steps, but recognize the limitations of cross-training. You aren’t going to turn an interaction designer into an expert visual designer overnight, if ever. The cross-discipline skills will likely never be as strong as the core skill. When you need an expert, make sure that you go to the specialist.
Over time, you’ll notice that your cross-trained UXers can cover an incredible breadth of work and will become your most valuable employees. At that point, you can turn them loose to build their next generation.
But Should We Do This?
Or, more to the point, why would we do this? Obviously agile is here to stay and UX generalists are great for agile. Furthermore, generalist training is a great step on the leadership path, since at some point leaders will manage cross-functional teams and will need to speak the language of their disciplines.
So, with that in mind, developing T-shaped UXers is really in service to our people and sets them up for further success in their careers. At the same time, a team of generalists gives the UX leader greater flexibility in staffing. But, the fact of the matter is that we probably don’t have much choice. At some point, the industry is going to demand T-shaped people. We need to be prepared.
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