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My Thoughts on Unicorns in the Mystical World of UX

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This article is about a phenomenon within the UX community. Recently I've seen several companies looking to hire what they refer to as a "unicorn"; an employee so named due to the rarity of individuals with such talents. A unicorn is someone who can take on and perform the tasks of a UX Designer/Architect, Visual Designer and Developer (typically front-end). I do believe individuals exist that carry all of these talents at an expert level, but I also believe they are incredibly rare.

I bet you thought this was going to be a fun article about cryptozoology or the way that Lisa Frank influenced UX. Sadly, it is not, but it is dotted with various Dribbble shots of unicorns (thank you, Marc, Andy and Erin) and I hope it's still a fun read!

Simple Unicorn by Marc Clancy
Simple Unicorn by Marc Clancy

I want to explore the myths, truths, troubles, and successes with unicorns. Much of this is my personal opinion based on what I've seen in the marketplace and what I've experienced within my own positions as a UX Architect. I'd love for us to have a healthy discourse in the comments if you, as the reader, feel differently. Quite different from my previous articles, this is more of an editorial piece and I welcome those with varying opinions and thoughts.


Generalization vs. Specialization

Much of the discussion lies in this tension between generalization and specialization. This is to say do you have a broader range of talents at the expense of the depth of knowledge within each one or do you have a more narrow range of talents with a deeper expertise? You've probably heard the expression "Jack of All Trades, Master of None." I think this applies perfectly in this situation. Let's look at some issues with trying to perform as a unicorn.

The Problem with Unicorns

Spread Too Thin

Performing the tasks of UX, visual design, and developer is a lot to take on. There are many people pulling at you from various directions and there's a lot to track in order to keep up with it all. It can be hard to be productive when you're in the middle of developing something and you get a UX question from someone and then a visual design question from someone else. Your brain has to move between disciplines and it's difficult for you to gain focus for long periods of time. Yes, you have knowledge of all of it in one area but the approach to each is different and you have to look at it from a different angle.

Your time alone is more difficult to manage because now you have to plan for three different disciplines and account for the time you need to do all three phases. Regardless of talent in each phase, one person only has so much time and with one person partitioning that time it can be arduous to juggle all the responsibilities.

Built-In Bias

When you're the owner of all three phases then you feel the weight of that ownership and are potentially less likely to take criticism well and make necessary changes. You may unintentionally make your UX or design "easier" and not as good as it should be because you know you're going to do the development. When you're developing you may be less willing to go in a different direction because you also own the UX and design. Throughout the entire project you only have one set of eyes accounting for all three disciplines.

Scheduling

We talked about being spread too thin and that can cause scheduling issues for other team members. Normally, you could just call the UX, design, or developer into a meeting when you feel they're necessary. Now, you have to be in more meetings because of the added responsibility. This takes even more time away and complicates further the increased workload that a unicorn takes on. This increased complexity augments exponentially as the unicorn takes on multiple projects.

Why Three is Better Than One

Peer Review

I love having dedicated designers and developers look at my work. They always view it from a different angle and provide great feedback on ways to improve it. Unicorns may inherently have those different angles but having other people alone helps provide feedback that's difficult, if not impossible, to provide yourself. This is simply due to the nature of a different personality and intellect looking at your work. Peer review is one of the easiest and greatest ways to improve your work and helps you get better with new viewpoints.

Focus

There's a lot to be said for being able to focus on a singular project and/or discipline. It really helps you in being able to dive into your work and look at it from all angles. You have time to poke holes in it, look for inspiration from others, and throw several ideas out there. This ultimately leads to a better product. When your focus is divided, you tend to rush things and your work can suffer as a result.

Expertise

I want to be clear in that I'm not saying unicorns can't be experts at all three disciplines. I will say that it's very difficult to pull off, but it can be done. However, I think dedicated resources can become even better experts in their own field. It's simply a matter of capacity. When you're able to dedicate more time to a specific craft then you become better at it. When you have to split that, then your level of expertise will consequently suffer to some degree.


Employers' Guide to Unicorns

When Unicorns Might Work

Spirit Animal by Andy Pitts
Spirit Animal by Andy Pitts

Startup

I think startups are much more suited for unicorns than large corporate environments. First, startups typically either work on a single product or fewer products than a large corporate company might. Secondly, there are fewer employees so there are fewer people to pull the unicorn away from their work with questions and meetings. It may also be a need of necessity for a startup in the sense that a unicorn is cheaper to hire than hiring three separate employees focused on a single discipline.

Focus on Single Product With a Waterfall Approach

It's helpful if a company is focused on a single product, because the unicorn is not pulled in different directions in terms of their focus on different products. Utilizing a waterfall approach also helps in this case because the unicorn can focus on one discipline at a time and just move from one to another when the project calls for it. The problem is that having both of these situations, especially together, is becoming rare with few companies focused on a single product and the Agile process becoming increasingly popular.

Rural Areas

Rural areas might be another situation where a unicorn can be successful because the talent pool for hiring highly talented individuals in each discipline is smaller. Finding someone who can perform a range of duties can help with that matter. With that said, it is also much more difficult to find an individual skilled in all three of those disciplines in those areas.

When You're Better Off Without Them

Larger Organizations

Large organizations can afford the time, money, and effort it takes to find and employ individuals skilled in a particular discipline, giving them the ability to focus on that discipline and only that discipline. For reasons I've stated, I believe that hiring a unicorn is a fallback solution. For a large organization to hire a unicorn they are shortchanging themselves from higher quality work.

Multiple Projects

As a UX Architect, I may sometimes may be working on five or six projects at a time. If I also had to work on Visual Design and Development of those same projects it would be incredibly difficult for me to juggle all of that.

Urban areas

Contrary to that of rural areas, urban areas are usually rich in talent. You can find a unicorn more easily, but you can also find three individuals who are incredibly skilled at a dedicated discipline. Hiring practices should be rigorous. If you do need to hire a unicorn then I would put them through a series of detailed tasks to see if they can truly perform all three tasks at a high level.


The UX Professional's Guide to Unicorns

Hybrids

A more common occurrence is a hybrid; someone who can perform UX and either visual design or development. Ostensibly, this person is also easier to find because they only need to possess two of the three skills and be proficient at those. These are often more common because a lot of UX folks start in one of these other disciplines before transitioning into UX. Let's look a little closer at each type.

The UX/Visual Designer hybrid is a bit of an easier task because this person can essentially beautify their own wireframes. They can actually think about the design elements and potential impact while building the UX. You still don't have that extra person for checks and balances against your UX, but this type of hybrid can be more easily managed because it's easier to meld the two and have some overlap in terms of tasks and schedule.

The UX/Developer to me seems like a more difficult task because of that need for a visual designer in the middle. Having both of these disciplines does aid in creating rapid prototypes though, especially ones that can be iterated upon to be implemented in the final build of the product. Another way to mitigate that time lost during the visual design phase is to build out the wireframes and then apply the design layer at a later time. This may create a little more rework, but the foundation is at least laid while the design is being worked out.

Why All UXers Should be Pseudo-Unicorns

Maybe we don't need to be experts in all three phases, but we absolutely must have at least a working knowledge of them. If you don't know the capabilities and limitations of the development environment and programming languages, then you may design UX that's impossible, or err on the side of leaving out a great feature because you think it's technically unfeasible. Perhaps you don't know the design language and then you design UX that is completely out of character and out of synch with the rest of the product. That base knowledge of each discipline is crucial to the UX process. The designer and developer are stakeholders in a sense, and should have input, but you also need to start with some level of knowledge so that you aren't completely dependent on your co-workers.

Neapolitan Unicorn by Erin Hunting
Neapolitan Unicorn by Erin Hunting

Conclusion

Unicorns are rare, but incredibly talented individuals. I've outlined the potential downfalls of employing a unicorn. I've also listed some situations in which they can work and prove beneficial to a company. For all the reasons stated above, I simply believe that three people focused on very specific disciplines can more effectively deploy a product than a single person trying to take on all tasks. This article is not meant to degrade the talents of any unicorns, but rather shed light on when they can be successful and why most of the time companies are better off employing specialists.

Please share your thoughts in the comments. This article is meant to provoke discussion as I believe there are many issues at hand and I'd love to hear both corroborative and dissenting arguments on this topic.

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