Describing the shape of a specialist

How do you describe the shape of a discipline?

Lots of my job is about defining what it means to be a user experience architect and a design researcher at the BBC. This year I’ve used different methods for learning about and describing the shape of the disciplines of UXA and design research — so I thought I’d share two of my favourites.

Getting literal about shape

The shape of UXA looks a little like antarctica.

The first method mixed a survey and scoring with a visual graph to describe the discipline and individual strengths and development opportunities. Inspired by Alberta Soranzo I created a competency survey using skills that might fall into the remit of a UX architect at the BBC.

The UXA team is fairly mature, with a well established and shared view on what good looks like. But there’s still room for interpretation and nuance. The list included a mixture of soft skills and hard skills. I asked members of the team to provide three scores for each skill or competency.

Personal scores for now and the future

The first set of scores described their personal confidence and competence. I asked members of the team to give each competency two scores. One described their skill or confidence now. The other score described where they’d like to be in 7 months.

1/2 — I’m not even sure what this means.

3/4 — My understanding is mainly theoretical.

5/6 — I have done it before, but I wouldn’t be able to do it without support.

7/8 — I’m proficient and I feel confident in doing this on my own.

9 — I’m an expert. I (could) share my knowledge and supervise and train others.

10 — Others see me as an industry expert. I’ve developed methodologies and/or I give talks or publish.

How important to the discipline?

I also asked them to give each skill a score for how important it was to the discipline.

1/2 — We should never do this — doing it is dangerous.

3/4 — I suppose we could do this.

5/6 — We need someone in the team to do this.

7/8 — We should all know something about this — maybe 1 or 2 specialists.

9/10 — We should all know about this and be able to do it with confidence.

This gave me lots of data. I created a chart to describe the strengths and development ambitions of individual team members. I could also have a conversation about the shape of the discipline overall. The chart at the top of this section describes the shape of the discipline. The exercise gave me a clear sense of what the team thought was important to the practice of UX architecture. And I could estimate where we had strengths or a deficit of skills across skill areas.

These graphs have prompted lots of conversation within the team. They’re also a useful visual representation for the boundaries of the discipline. This helps to plan when and how we interact with other disciplines and teams at the BBC.

Prototypical behaviours

The second method is a little more focused on behaviours and what it feels like to work with or lead one of these specialist discipline teams. At the BBC we have teams for UX writing, architecture and design research. I organised a workshop where we did some digging into the prototypical characteristics of each type of expert.

This time I took inspiration from Margaret Stewart. I developed a set of attribute cards that added a few extra attributes to her leadership cards set. I asked groups of writers, architects and researchers to sort the cards. They chose four cards to describe the most important behaviours for each discipline. The teams could stack rank other attributes that might be important to the discipline. I also asked the groups to pull out two attributes that were most important for the leadership of the discipline.

This helped to shape conversations between the disciplines about the culture and behaviours that were most valuable in the practice of the specialism. It enabled us to talk about stereotypes that might be associated with disciplines — prejudices we might need to overcome. Are all IAs perceived as pedantic or too details oriented? Are researchers too neutral and impartial? Are writers too considered and lack spontaneity? I even went as far as to use the same description for more than one card. This sparked a conversation about the power of labels and how we describe our skills and specialism.

Our specialist teams are at different stages of their evolution. Having a conversation about the behaviours and attributes of the team helped us to talk about where we’re beginning as specialists and how we might develop. It also gave members of the team a chance to talk about the style and behaviours they thought were important from a leader of the specialism.

We ran this activity on the same day we’d been playing with the new BBC font — Reith. It was great to see members of UX&D without typography or visual design backgrounds talk about the shape and form of typography and how it affects meaning. It was maybe even better to talk about the shape of disciplines, reflect and become more intentional in the practice of our specialism.



I'm a Creative director at the BBC. I like words, design, data and magic. These are all my own views (apart from retweets. I borrowed those to look clever.)

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I'm a Creative director at the BBC. I like words, design, data and magic. These are all my own views (apart from retweets. I borrowed those to look clever.)