Generalist or specialist? Why experience design is neither and both

Throughout my time working in digital design, every trend seems to have followed this pattern: generalists rule, then specialists rule, then generalists rule again, then the specialists have it. In the early 2000’s, digital designers were coders and graphic designers and UXers in one (generalists), then graphic designers got involved and ‘web design’ meant designing pages in Photoshop and UXers worked in speadsheets (specialists). Then we wanted innovators again (‘T-shaped people’) who could make and think and design (generalists). In 2015 we seem to have decided that simply because digital is no longer a separate channel, it doesn’t mean that agencies should be stretching themselves thin and claiming to do it all. Rather, should we go back to doing a few things very, very well (specialists)?


So where does this leave visual vs UX vs service design? Must we go back to being one or the other? I’m not so sure. I was a visual designer, became a UX and have been using service design methods for a number of years. I have designed changes to a medical referral system in China, wireframed banking applications and written countless digital style guides. I am loathe to call myself either a service designer or a UX. Like many well practiced designers, I put tremendous effort and detail into what I do (a specialist’s eye) but I believe that service design and experience design thinking can be one and the same (a generalist’s heart).


Perhaps the benefit of serving digital omnivores is that they expect solutions to work across every touchpoint, so how can a UX not be a service designer these days and vice versa? When do service blueprints and journey mapping become one and the same? When do annotated wires and annotated floor plans diverge? 


Interestingly, when I was invited to observe a hospital emergency room last year, in order to isolate the barriers presented to patients waiting to be triaged, I approached it like a heuristic review of sorts. I drew a floor map and annotated it, isolating the players and the barriers. I showed the journey, how the user was moving from A to B and onwards. It was the most natural way for me to illustrate my observations and isolate the problems we were trying to solve.


Emergency room flow



The process followed the same basic pattern: observe the problem then define the problem, before attempting to prototype and test the solution. Some might call this ‘design thinking’, but the overuse of that phrase almost implies I was following a formal approach instead of using my design instincts.


To the casual observer, this would appear to be a service design project because the touchpoints were not all digital and the improvements would need to be made, not just to the digital systems used to admit patients and communicate with other players, but to the human interactions and the environment itself. Yet all the digital designers present instantly understood the barriers as they observed the space. Would it be unthinkable for them to be able to solve the problems a service designer might be able to? To oversee in-depth research designed to get them the answers they needed?


The thing that divides designers seems to be less about the channel/s in which we work or the level of attention we give to one aspect of our craft, but whether there is an interest in an ecosystem. In my view, the only designer facing extinction is the one who is not interested in understanding the world his product lives in, only the lick of paint he can give it. He will cut a lonely figure as he exits, while most other designers will withstand every trend that can be thrown at us.