The Pi-shaped Designer

On my way to lunch, I noticed a little Twitter conversation between Christina Wodtke and Steve Portigal.

For a long time, there was talk of looking for designers, engineers, or other creative people that were “T-shaped,” a shorthand for “good at a lot of things and great at this one thing.”

For UXers, this came to mean being great at one of the core facets of the UX field, be it Information Architecture, User Research, Interaction Design, Content Strategy, etc.* All of us need to be functional in all of these disciplines, but it pays to have a focus in one of these areas.

Increasingly so, the UX field is turning its attention towards what Jared Spool likes to call “unicorns,” people who are particularly strong in two areas: one of the UX disciplines and front end web development. There is an increasing appetite in the job market for people who carry both of these types of skills. There’s even the forthcoming Unicorn Institute that will crank out a new super-charged breed of UXers who have UX and coding chops.

So now we’re in a place where the UX talent market seems to be gradually shifting towards this double-layered skill set. The Unicorns are not T-shaped, they are instead “?-shaped” With a wavy level of competence in a variety of skills, but two deep skill sets: a UX discipline and development skill. This combination provides the 1-2 punch of designing and building, or at least designing and more realistically prototyping the design. We can argue the nuances of process and deliverable fidelity, but the fact remains that the “?-shaped” is in many ways representative of a future vision for UX.

Will there still be t-shaped designers? Of course. We need specialists, but as the UX field expands to include more people, the role will evolve as well.

*Before you get mad at me, yes, I think front-end web development can be called one of the UX disciplines because of its direct impact on the user. But humor me for the sake of this conversation, and consider a chasm between design skills and coding skills, would you?