Specialist or generalist: which is the right fit for your project?

October 1, 2014

When we meet with a potential client for the first time, we often hear that they are trying to find the right type of company to work with. Not the right company, but the right type of company. Because Crux Collaborative is a user experience consulting firm, you might assume that we try to convince all potential clients that a user experience specialist is the best equipped to meet their objectives. In reality, we often end up referring potential clients to digital agencies, consulting firms, or individual consultants with different areas of focus than ours.

In today’s marketplace, there is no shortage of companies, consulting firms, and consultants who can help an organization with an interactive project, a piece of software, a website, or an application. In fact, there are so many options that part of our sales process now involves helping clients understand whether it makes sense to consider us for their project or if we should refer them to someone else. This may seem counterintuitive, but the vast majority of our revenue is generated from repeat customers or word-of-mouth referrals– so only choosing projects that we’re sure we can successfully deliver on is a critical component of our ongoing success.

A decade ago, many of the companies and consultants working in interactive had a fairly commensurate degree of experience. This is no longer the case. There has been an explosion of devices and online experiences and a resulting explosion in the types of companies and specializations to address them. Some claim to “do it all” or a good portion of it  (generalists), and some claim an area of expertise (specialists). In business, as in life – there is somebody for everybody. It’s just a matter of timing, connections, and sometimes, sheer luck to find the right fit.

So when it comes to making the decision about what type of company to work with- how do potential clients know if a specialist or generalist is the best partner to choose? Since we’ve been having this conversation quite a bit lately, we thought we’d share some key factors that can help an organization decide.

There is no “right” answer to these questions, but being honest about the answer can help increase your probability of success.

When it comes time to pick a partner for your next project ask yourself:

Can you clearly articulate your objectives? Do you know what success looks like?

If the answer is no, then you’ll want to work with one of the many companies who help clients find the “white space” in a given industry. They frame the problem, map the trends and help define what success looks like for their clients and how to achieve it.

If the answer is yes, and you can clearly articulate what it means to be successful, it’s about finding the specialty firm with the right expertise to help you meet your objectives.

It’s similar to how we might approach an overall lack of energy and general malaise than we do when we have a specific health issue. For the former, we are more willing to explore options that may be considered new or alternative. For the latter, we want a specialist who’s done a lot of procedures and has a high success rate. We’re not looking to be wowed with a new approach we’ve never heard of, we’re looking for a well-defined process and a known outcome.

Are you going to be part of the team or is your job to hire out the work?

In some cases, a potential client is looking to outsource the solution. In others, they want to collaborate on the definition, development, and implementation of the solution. Knowing which category you fit into will help you find the right partner.

For example, when you are looking to outsource, a digital agency with strong account and planning teams can be a great choice. They can provide insight into how the trends and themes affecting your industry are relevant to your consumers.

Conversely, if you have a team in place who has the business, product, and industry expertise well in hand, a consulting firm with a specific area of focus can collaborate with them to arrive at the right solution.

Consider how much you’re able to contribute to the process of arriving at the solution. In order to choose the right partner, it’s critical that you know if you have the capacity and available resources to participate in defining the solution or if you simply want to be a recipient of the solution.

Is a successful outcome or innovation more important?

Obviously both of these things are important. But if you had to pick, which of them matters most? To continue to use the medical analogy we defined above, are you looking to increase your vitality and willing to try a number of approaches along the way even if they are unusual? Or do you need a specific problem solved, by someone who’s done it before, can explain the process, and has a proven track record?

You need a specialist. Now what?

If you decide you need a specialist, the next big decision will be which specialist to go with.  A lot of firms will tell you they employ consultants- or claim to be specialists in a given area. Here are a few questions to ask or items to watch for that can help you be sure:

1. When you meet with them, do they lead with their capabilities and a “reel” or do they start by asking you about your needs and objectives?

If they start by talking all about themselves and spend the majority of your time together selling their experience or services – be wary. In order to make an accurate and effective assessment, a good specialist needs to know about you, your objectives and your constraints. If someone claims to be a specialist but doesn’t spend a good portion of the time asking questions and listening as opposed to talking— they’re not what they claim.

2. Are the people who sell you the work the same people who will perform the work? The same people you’ll have day-to-day contact with over the course of the project?

A specialist is a considered a specialist because they’ve developed expertise through years of actually doing the work. They often have a support staff, but when it comes down to it, they are the one who is assessing, estimating, directing and performing the work. Always directly ask who you’ll be working with, who will be on your project team –and beware if the person you are talking to claims that they’ll “oversee” the project. Many of us at Crux Collaborative came from agency environments and we’ve seen firsthand that top talent at many agencies is pitching – not delivering on sold work. Once a project is sold, the discipline leads direct their attention to the next pitch and the work is handed off to the “delivery” team.

3. Can they clearly articulate and describe the process they will use to meet your objectives? Are they able to speak to complexities, pitfalls, and aspects that are unique to your needs?

Expertise comes from experience— the ability to recognize patterns, running into and working around constraints, and repeated success solving a specific type of problem. There are no shortcuts, but once it’s been established, a specialists can always define their process and give a solid estimate of the time and budget it will take to solve a particular problem. If you’ve explained your objectives and constraints to a specialist and they can’t tell you what they will do, how they will do it, how long it will take, and what it will cost- you’re not talking to a specialist.

4. Do they communicate the boundaries of their expertise? Do they have partnerships and other firms that they work with or can recommend for the types of work for which they are not a fit?

Just like people, all organizations have strengths and weaknesses. Not every organization is willing to communicate their weakness to potential clients— but a specialist will. You don’t gain the expertise you need in a given area without devoting focus and attention to it. When you do that, by default you choose to not focus on other things. Those who have achieved excellence in an area are unafraid to claim their expertise as well as communicate what they don’t do. Look for this skill- it will help you know if you’re truly talking to a specialist.

So to wrap up all this talk of specialization, of communicating areas of focus, of knowing what you’re good at and what you don’t do- here’s what we do at Crux Collaborative: User experience consulting for data-driven, transactional websites and applications. User research is a design step in our process, not a “nice to have” and collaboration with our clients is critical to the way we work. Our clients bring the business and vertical expertise; we bring the user experience expertise.

If your project or application requires thoughtful analysis of how to present content and functionality in order to complete a task, if the project addresses an experience that’s behind a login and data-driven, or if you are in a highly regulated industry with a lot of rules and legal requirement, we’re a match! Get in touch and let’s have a conversation.

By Mahtab Rezai
Principal & CEO

Mahtab has spent nearly two decades as a user experience designer, researcher, strategist, leader, and mentor. She has designed user experiences for companies ranging from startups to the Fortune 50.

View Mahtab's Bio


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