What’s your T-shape?

I spent a few hours last night beating myself up for letting my HTML and CSS skills get so rusty that I now need to dedicate a significant amount of time getting myself back up to date in order to be able to do a halfway decent job of coding my own prototypes.

I frequently see other UX practitioners being beaten up on mailing lists because they don’t have a traditional design background, or visual design talent, or know everything there is to know about accessibility.

Interestingly, I rarely see us beating each other up for having poor client communication skills or project management skills, or uncreative or inappropriate strategic direction (or no strategic direction at all), but perhaps that is because these things are more difficult to measure and judge.

Here’s the thing though – these are just a tiny few of the skills that are tremendously useful if you want to be a good UX practitioner. And there are many, many very important ones I haven’t mentioned at all. How on earth is anyone a good UXers when there is no way in hell we can all be good at all of these things?

Truth is, we can’t. The sooner we accept this the better, and the sooner we embrace our own and others ‘T-Shapes’ the happier we and our clients will be.

I learned about the concept of T-shaped Information Architects and then T-Shaped UXers from Peter Boersma. The general concept is that along the ‘short’ bar of the T you have all the skills/experience that a UX practitioner needs – everything I listed above and more… if I made a list I’m sure we’d just spend time adding more and more to it.

Then we each have a ‘long’ bar of our T – your long bar is made up of those aspects of UX that you particularly enjoy, have aptitude for, and enjoy doing. That might be coding prototypes, it might be typography, it might be visual design, it might be research, it might be managing teams. As far as I can see, as long as you have a certain amount of experience and knowledge in each of the ‘essential’ elements of the short T-bar, then you can choose any of these to make up your long T-bar.

None of us has any right to tell someone who has different elements in their long t-bar that they are any less of a UXer than we are. Any one who does is, I suspect, either insecure about all the elements they’re not so great at, or unnecessarily proud of the few things they do well. Or don’t realise how much there is to know about if you’re going to be any good at this at all.

And then here’s what we need to do:

  • Choose our own long t-bar.
  • Become really great at what we really enjoy.
  • Tell our clients where our strengths and weaknesses lie.
  • Choose projects and teams that work to our strengths and give us opportunities to work up more experience and knowledge in areas we’d like to move from our short bar to our long bar.
  • Network  with peers who have different things in their long T-Bars and work with them when we need to fill in gaps.
  • Embrace our differences, stop shouting criticism at each other, be encouraging.

Yes, I know I should have done a diagram to go with this post. I’ll do that later if I get some time (or you’re welcome to make one for me if cool diagrams are in your long T-Bar!)

3 thoughts on “What’s your T-shape?

  1. Hi Lisa,

    This is a very good observation and one that applies to most modern professions. We all need to be generalists to some extent but it’s important to know what you’re really good at. And what somebody else can do better.

    As always, enjoying your blog.


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