Unicorn Origami Image credit: Perry Bailey

This Business with Unicorns

A Raccoon, a Panda, and a Unicorn walk into a bar

3 ½ minute read

Unicorns: Mythical creatures that are spoken of, but never seen. In the UX world, the term is used to describe that rare person who can do it all — design, research, write, and code — and do it at a very high level. It’s become so common that companies looking for talent are putting out job ads for so-called “unicorns.” And well-known industry gurus are promising to show the path to single-hornedness in five easy steps.

Is this for real? And do you really need to get your unicorn on to have a successful career in UX?

Let’s start this little thought experiment with two decidedly non-mythical creatures you might find in the workplace.

Raccoons vs. Pandas: Generalists and Specialists

The question really comes down to: Do you want to be really good — among the best in your field — at one thing, or is it better to have a broad range of skills that you can draw from in your professional life? Is it better to be a generalist or a specialist? This is the real question.

We’ll talk about the horses with bone deformities a little later.

The specialist is the panda of the working world. The advantage of being a specialist is that you can fill a niche and meet a specific need. This often means being paid handsomely for your expertise. Being paid handsomely is nice. So is being recognized and respected for your exceptional skills. The downside is the risk that your skill of choice may one day no longer be needed (you VB code-ninja, you); a predicament often referred to as the Specialist’s Dilemma. Career pivots are harder. Specialists also face a higher likelihood of career burnout after so many years of doing the same thing.

Generalists, meanwhile, are raccoons. They enjoy a larger playing field of opportunity. This usually means more jobs to choose from and a potentially more satisfying and varied career. The generalist is arguably better prepared to handle a down job market or tough economic times due to their collection of skills. On the flip side, generalists may find themselves in poorly defined roles, potentially not getting as much money as their specialist counterparts. They also often miss out on the prestige that comes with being a recognized expert in a particular field.

The value of the specialists and generalists really depends upon the situation; the work environment and your own career goals. Broadly speaking, generalists tend to excel in small teams and startups. Specialists tend to do better in larger organizations. Not always, but that is the general trend.

Another distinction between the two is the depth of their world-view. Specialists see details at the micro-level. The nitty gritty. Generalists view from a higher, macro-level. You could argue (and I would) that generalists’ range makes them good candidates for management and leadership roles.

Unicorns are Hyper-Generalists

Traditionally, generalists have been described as “masters of none.” They are capable with a variety of skill-sets, but not necessarily the best at any one skill. The unicorn concepts implies a hyper-generalist who has mastery of many different skills.

I think the nickname is fitting, but also misleading. Most of the time, when people refer to someone as a unicorn, they’re really saying that the person is competent at a variety of skills, but they’re not really masters. Most so-called unicorns you run into in the workplace wilds really have mastery in one area and competency in a handful of others. The designer who can code is usually just that: A knockout designer who is handy with a text editor (but not really an expert coder).

I’m No Unicorn

Me — I’m that raccoon in your trash bins; an old-school generalist. I can write a little, have a decent eye for aesthetics, am comfortable with web programming, and can speak with confidence on a variety of business topics. I’m also not the guy you call when you need to optimize your database performance or write a “real” application. I can make stuff look nice, but there are better people for designing innovative and breathtaking user interfaces. I know when it’s best to defer to a specialist.

Having said that, I think that my generalist background puts me in a unique position to build teams, establish empathy for specialists, and communicate effectively with a wide range of folks. It allows me to think and act at a strategic level that a specialist might not.

I’m pretty good at a variety of things. Not great, but good enough, usually — the raccoon with the ivory horn.

How about you? Are you a panda, a raccoon, or a unicorn?

What are your thoughts? Join me in the conversation over on Threads , Bluesky Social , or Mastodon .

Originally published October 29, 2016
File under: ux  research  design