The T in a Great UX Design Team: Generalists, Specialists and T-Shaped People

Jeff LeBlanc

Jeff is Director of User Experience for ICS. He has extensive experience developing custom Qt solutions with a strong focus on applying human factors principles to UX design.

By Jeff LeBlanc | Monday, September 14, 2015

Team building is always one of the biggest challenges facing any manager.  Sometimes you get to build a team from scratch and get to forge your own dynamic, other times you inherit a partial or full team and have to figure out the dynamic.  For a user experience (UX) design team, besides the interpersonal mix, there is also the added factor of determining what skill sets to bring into the team.

For a UX designer, there is a wide (and not fully agreed upon) list of possible skills one could have: user research, user testing, ethnography, interaction design, wireframing, sketching, information architecture and visual design are only some of them.  Add to that project management skills, communication, mediation, and prototyping skills from paper to running software. Someone with a title of UX designer could be proficient in any of these. A nice discussion on these skills can be found in an article entitled Essential and Desirable Skills for a UX Designer.

To equate that to software development, as I’ve done in my last few posts, it’s the equivalent of looking for someone skilled in database programming versus computer graphics: both are considered “software engineers”, but bring very different skills to the table.

But wait, there’s more!  There is also the question about hiring people with reasonable proficiency in many skills (generalists), or people with deep knowledge in certain areas (specialists). One could build a team of specialists, each one working on their piece of the puzzle individually as part of a pipeline that ends up with a top-notch final product.  On the other hand, one could hire generalists, where different team members are able to work on different parts of the problem at different times.  There are pros and cons to each approach, as discussed in an excellent post by Jared Spool a few years back (Ideal UX Team Makeup: Specialists, Generalists or Compartmentalists).₂

Another perspective is to build a team that has a number of T-shaped people, as described by Tom Kelly in “The Ten Faces of Innovation." Kelly describes people who are experts in at least one area, but also enjoy a broad breadth of knowledge in a variety of topics. With the right mix, you get the advantages of having specialists, but also the greater appreciation of different disciplines that a generalist has. Kelly claims that these folks will excel at cross-pollination as well, spreading ideas and understanding across the disciplines. It’s a powerful concept.

This notion of cross-pollination is a core principle here at ICS. When we were building our UX Design (UXD) team, we were considering how to actively promote communication between designers and developers. We want to have designers who are cognizant of the issues in developing software, and developers who understand the value that good UX design brings to a final product. This notion is nicely described by Larry Marturano as “disciplinary empathy” in his blog T-Shaped Teams.₃

I’ve talked a lot in this series of blog posts about the similarities I see between design and development.  As a developer for many years who is now managing a team of designers, I’ve seen many of the same problems and solutions repeated across both areas; “discipline patterns," perhaps?  I think a big part of getting an efficient cross-functional team working well is exactly that level of empathy that Martuarano discusses in his article.  While it is nice on occasion to have a real rock star player on your team for those hard problems, that may come with an inability to play nicely with others that negates their value. From my perspective, the more T-people that I can get on my team – the better!

  1. Essential and Desirable Skills for a UX Designer,, UX Matters website, last accessed, July 29, 2015
  2. Ideal UX Team Makeup: Specialists, Generalists, or Compartmentalists,,UIE website, last accessed, 30 July 2015
  3. T-Shaped Teams,, website, last accessed, 30 July 2015



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