Why do startups usually hire UX generalists instead of specialists?

When searching for tips on how to hire different kinds of employees, one can usually find guides for medium to large businesses. It’s quite understandable, given the amount of experience they amassed over the years and the fact that these companies typically have a full-fledged HR department. Startups are a different breed, though, where standard rules don’t apply. Take UX design, for example. If you’re here, you’re probably wondering, why do startups usually hire UX generalists instead of specialists?

Even though each business is created with the goal of being successful with a large and loyal audience, startups have a different way of moving toward that goal. Their growth patterns and the aim for innovation are what makes their hiring choices somewhat unconventional to the naked eye. But actually, it’s pretty simple and reasonable. Today, we’ll focus on user experience professionals and which UX role is best suited for startups and why.

What are generalists and specialists in user experience design?

User experience is a broad career path and industry. The vast majority of roles people have to take on after becoming a UX professional in a UI and UX design and development company are tightly connected, even though some are more niche and some slightly more generalized. That’s what has led to the industry having both generalists and specialists. But what is their meaning in the UX career?

In UX design, there are five prominent careers to pursue - UX/UI designers, information architects, UX researchers, UX writers, and UX or content strategists. All these careers have one thing in common - they are a combination of multiple core UX skills, such as visual design, interaction design, user research, information design, information architecture, copywriting, editing, and fast iteration management. If you are interested  in UI more, read our article on building a custom user interface.

At any point in the UX career, there comes a time for a decision - to be a generalist, which means practicing multiple roles, for example, research and design, or branch out and specialize in something more specific. The latter can help you become a true master in your field and provide more knowledge in particular domains that others can’t. Generalists, however, have more choice in the projects they get and are incredibly versatile.

Sometimes, UX design generalists and specialists are described as T-shaped and I-shaped designers. T-shaped designers specialize in many things but can be quite good at one thing, while I-shaped designers are great at only one thing. The top horizontal line in the letter “T” represents the experience in design stuff related to the main field.

Generalists vs specialists in UX
Generalists vs specialists in UX

Basically, being a user experience generalist has the advantage of being able to:

  • Work on a wider variety of design projects;
  • Gather more career opportunities;
  • Gain more experience and see different perspectives;
  • Switch to being a specialist more quickly and effortlessly.

Meanwhile, specialists can offer more in-depth knowledge and experiences in a certain UX domain, which is excellent if a person knows what area of user experience interests them the most. Specialists can also choose projects better suited to their area of expertise and have more time to focus on what they do best.

All in all, both options can be rewarding, and there’s also a notion going around that at the start of your career, it’s better to be a generalist. That way, you can become a well-rounded professional before picking a more specialized field. Nevertheless, the “hireability” is what we came here to discuss, and where it’s better to be a generalist than a specialist and vice versa.

Which type of business would be most likely to hire a specialist UX designer?

Large companies are most likely to hire specialist UX designers because of how they define roles and responsibilities within their business. The larger company usually deals with larger projects and a higher number of them than smaller or medium-sized businesses. This leads to them often having more specific roles, such as UX researcher or UX writer, given the fact that there’s always work for them.

In general, any type of business that has short-term projects with fixed project parameters and determined design briefs can benefit from hiring specialists, provided they have from an average to a slightly higher budget and a tight schedule. A few specialists will do the job faster and more accurately than one generalist.

Benefits of hiring UX specialists

The main advantages of hiring user experience specialists over generalists include:

  • The ability to hire the finest in the field, either the best UX designers or the top UX researchers, etc., and let them do what they do best. You’ll get the best results if you allow designers to design and researchers to research.
  • You can add more perspective to your projects by having more people with specialized knowledge and experience rather than letting designers, for example, do the research and test their own designs. There are bound to be biases at some point.
  • Project efficiency, since multiple tasks and parts of the project are being handled simultaneously due to each having its own role.

What UX generalists provide for a startup that specialists can’t

We’ve established that startups are often one of those types of businesses that would benefit the most from hiring a generalist over a specialist. Let’s look at the reasons why. Here’s what UX generalists can do for a startup that you may lack if you hire a specialist:

  • Reduce the need to hire more employees. If one or two UX generalists can do pretty much all the work on the project, i.e., research, design, and content writing, there’s no need for a startup to splurge on several more just to fill all the standard UX roles.
  • Work on any kind of project that has to do with user experience. As a startup, you can assign any type of project to the UX generalist without the necessity of hiring more professionals.
  • Provide a quicker switch to the next phase of project development. The transfer of information between different project steps gets much faster because the same person does, for example, both research and project design.
  • Offer more adaptability. A UX generalist can be more flexible regarding tasks and roles within the team, which is beneficial for startups that do have more vague initial requirements that constantly change throughout the project.
  • Save money and time. All the aforementioned perks of hiring a generalist for a startup also bring out another massive advantage - money-saving and time-efficiency, which can be crucial for startups since they can usually be low on both, especially in the early stages.

By the way, besides startups, the other two types of businesses that have an environment best suited for a UX generalist are small companies and design agencies. Smaller businesses typically have a tinier budget, so it makes sense for them to hire fewer people and reduce the number of departments by merging some of them, including the duties they perform.

Design agencies, on the other hand, are known for their variety of projects and the possibility to jump between different teams. For a person to thrive in this environment, they have to wear many hats and be able to take on tasks outside of their initial area of expertise. Agencies also offer outstaffing services, and being a generalist would mean getting chosen more often.

The roles of specialists in a startup environment

Let’s first establish what exactly is meant by “startup environment.” A fast-paced, ambiguous, high-stress atmosphere that can be quite unpredictable and unstructured is perhaps the first characteristic that comes to mind. All is true, but on the flip side, startups are an incredible breeding ground for innovation and creative spirit, with a focus on communication and a much flatter team hierarchy than your typical corporate culture.

There are two ways in which specialists operate in a startup environment - either a person gets hired as a generalist but after some time in the company decides to specialize in a more narrow field within their profession, or a person is a specialist in the first place and occasionally wears a few more hats in the team simply because that’s how startups can sometimes be.

The size of your team is key. In the initial stages, it’s unwise to opt only for specialists as they will definitely be required to take up more responsibilities than their official role calls for. A bit later, when the team scales up significantly and takes on more and more projects, specialists can help bring more depth and more specific knowledge and skills.

Startup culture being as open as they can be in communication allows people to modify their roles and acquire new skills on a daily. This freedom lets UX professionals, especially those who are just starting their careers, figure out their paths. Sometimes it can happen all within the same company.

How to structure a startup team when you can’t afford both UX generalists and specialists

Even though having both UX generalists and UX specialists on your team is the ideal way to go, not every startup can afford such a scale-up in their team, especially at the initial stages of business development. Successfully staffing a startup takes time and practice. Above all, you need to understand the differences between the roles of UX practitioners and their skill sets.

If at this time you need to select only one type of user experience professional, our advice would be to first hire generalists that show range, and then as soon as you have the means to expand the team, add a few narrowly specialized experts on board. Also, hone the communication skills within your team and improve the collaboration process, particularly between research and design.

Tips on structuring a team as a startup

14% of startups fail as a result of assembling the wrong team. If your startup has found itself at a crossroads during the staffing process, you should consider the following tips.

  • You should try to assemble cross-functional teams with all the departments working in unison and regularly sharing information. Have a couple of generalists able to convey different opinions and translate between, for example, design and development.
  • Have people that can always step in at the last minute if something goes wrong or an important team member calls in sick.
  • Avoid being non-specific about the required skills during your search for candidates. Even if you think this is how you find generalists in the field, it will more likely also attract tons of underqualified people. In that case, take time to include all your requirements, but perhaps note that not all of them you expect to find within one person.
  • Look for professionals versed in methodologies and techniques that differ from those your team currently possesses. Bring in the skill variety and contrasting perspectives to ensure a good user experience of your product.
  • If you’re not planning on hiring new people any time soon, then the next thing you should personally do is teach your team how to prioritize.

Summary

Overall, startups tend to gravitate toward hiring UX generalists instead of specialists because of a few simple reasons. You can mold the person to meet your company’s preferences in case you need a unique role, and that alone causes recently blooming businesses to choose professionals with a more extensive skillset within the user experience design industry.

Then, of course, the money issue. It can be costly maintaining a larger team of specialists, so naturally, startups with a smaller budget and high ambitions choose to hire a few generalists instead. If you’re looking for a sure solution on who to hire for your own company, set your requirements first and use our tips in this article to figure out what works best for you.

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Serhii Hyliuk

Head of Growth

Head of Growth and Customer Success. I'm interested in design, new tech, fashion, exploring new places and languages. My mission is to make our clients happy.

Head of Growth and Customer Success. I'm interested in design, new tech, fashion, exploring new places and languages. My mission is to make our clients happy.

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