Unicorns in UX? Just say no!

Marshal Datkowitz / Wednesday, February 05, 2014

The “Unicorn” concept (a rare individual who can do every UX job) has been talked up lately. I last heard an impassioned talk about this at UI18 in Boston. The idea goes something like this: There are so many enterprises that need UX services but there are just not enough people to do them. So what we need to do in the UX community is to avoid specialization and become a super generalist. If we become Unicorns then there will be more professionals available for the enterprises that need our services and there will be more opportunities for everyone. I just don’t get this logic and I think the conclusion hurts UX professionals, hurts the enterprises who employee UX professionals and more importantly hurts the people who use the enterprises’ products.

For many years I was a Unicorn. I did everything -- from usability testing to coding front-ends! Was I good? Well, good enough to keep my employer happy for many years. Was it good for the projects I worked on? Were the users best served by the websites and applications I helped build? The projects were better than the other projects not using any UX methods, but my projects could have been so much better. If the organization had a better understanding of what was truly needed and budgeted more UX time, all projects would have been completed faster and I know the final product would have been better. It was always a struggle convincing stakeholders to employ good UX practices, but once they were convinced they were always happy with the results.

I do hear that there doesn’t seem to be enough UX people, but is this really true? In my case it was not that there were not enough UX people in the market, it was the organizations unwillingness to hire the people and use UX methods. When I look at the ads posted for UX positions today, I see very unrealistic job descriptions. Descriptions written by people who don’t understand the field. They take every possible keyword and put them into one long wish list -- a description only a Unicorn can fill. Someone who can conduct research, create task flows, conduct usability tests, create wireframe, prototypes and  visual designs, write CSS, HTML, JavaScript, jQuery, and code .net and PHP! When organizations think that they can get all these skills from just one person, they don’t understand what UX is.

There are clearly not enough senior UX professionals who can fill all these positions, but if the job descriptions were slightly reworded and organizations opened up more opportunities to people with different skills, both the professionals and the organizations would benefit. Organizations will get the teams of people they need to create better products and UX professionals will be able to gain skills that can only be acquired by working in teams.

By hiring just one person, they must do everything, the quality and output of that individual is severely compromised. There is just not enough time to do research, talk to users or talk to other UX professionals. Almost at the same time as you are approached about a problem you are expected to create a prototype that solves that problem! There are limitations in how you approach problems and many times you must look for shortcuts to achieve suboptimal results. Organizations suffer because they get so-so results, other UX professionals suffer because organization are less likely to hire them (they got poor results in the past, why should they try again?) and of course users suffer because they are promised a positive user experience and they get a mediocre experience.

User Experience is not just a Visual Designer/Front End developer who has had some training in User Experience theory. User Experience is a team of User Researchers (people trained in Human Factors, Anthropology, Ethnography, Psychology and more) and Design (Graphic, Visual, Industrial and UI Design). Yes, I know that sounds like a lot of people, but I am not suggesting every project needs all these highly specialized positions. What I am suggesting is that the minimum team of people needed for a successful project is a User Experience Generalist and a Visual Design Generalist. These two areas require dedication to their craft and concentrated study to create the best user experience possible. I feel that as projects scale up, dedicated specialist are needed to deal with the volume and to increase the efficiency of the process.

Now, I am not a Unicorn. I work in an environment where UX professionals collaborate together on projects. There is always a dedicated UX Architect and Visual Designer on every project. After seeing what I used to do as a Unicorn and now what I can do as a dedicated UX Architect -- I would never go back. I have more time to concentrate on what I know best and the Visual Designer can concentrate on what they know best. After seeing what Visual Designers can do, I understand how important dedicated knowledge and skills are to every project.

Unicorns, it is an interesting idea but it shortchanges UX professionals, our clients and most importantly the people who use our products.