Specialism, Ego and The Dunning-Kruger Effect | February 19, 2014

Every few weeks I see a discussion emerge that tries to dismiss the need for specialists in our industry, or refute their existence entirely. It usually goes along the lines of ďIím a [insert discipline] and I do my own [insert activity] so [insert specialism] is unnecessary or doesn’t existĒ.

While itís great to have people with a broad range of skills and abilities, itís also a little hurtful to people who have dedicated their careers to being good at a particular thing, as it implies that all their choices and hard work were a waste of time.

Sometimes this conversation spins into the area of job titles and their general inability to sum up exactly what an individual does. Other times it has us dismissing fairly well understood disciplines or defining the damned thing. The conversation usually ends up with somebody saying something like ďWell Iím just going to call myself a Designer/DeveloperĒ as if picking the broadest and most generic term adds clarity to the conversation.

The problem is that I really do understand the sentiment. If youíve been working in the field of design for a very long time at a reasonably high level, everything starts to look the same. So when Iíve seen product designers, architects or moviemakers talk about their process, the similarities are uncanny. As such itís no surprise when very experienced people pronounce thatís its design (or development) all the way down.

However when you start to unpick each discipline, you discover that while the thought processes are similar, the individual activities and craft skills are often very different. You also realise that scale has a big influence.

If youíre working on relatively simple projects, itís entirely possible for a talented individual or small team of generalists to create something amazing. You see this in everything from Web design and indie-publishing to residential architecture and independent filmmaking.

For somebody who has built a successful career in this space, itís very easy to look at large design agencies, architectural firms or film companies and boggle at all the specialists they have. After all, do Hollywood movies really need a best boy, key grip and clapper loader when youíve just produced a short that you wrote, filmed and directed yourself?

It seems excessive, and maybe it is. I do think some industries have gone crazy with specialists, so thereís always room to assess whether a certain level of specialism is necessary for your particular requirements or situation.

However therein lies the problem! People really do have the habit of making statements about the whole industry based on the small corner they inhabit. I know, as Iím as guilty of this as most. As such we see lots of comments dismissing the need or even existence of certain specialisms not because they donít actually exist, but because those individuals just havenít hit the limits of their abilities where having those specialisms would help.

This is actually a fairly common cognitive bias known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, which sees people inaccurately assess their own level of knowledge while failing to recognize the skills of others. So if youíve ever watched a man try to build a fire, cook a BBQ or put up a shelf youíll know what I mean.

In itís most passive state, the Dunning-Kruger effect manifests itself as naivety and may actually be a key driver for learning. After all, isnít it more enticing to think that if you start learning a new skill, youíll get good at it quickly, rather than realising that youíre going to need 10,000 hours to perfect your craft?

As such we can help people get over this hump by expanding their worldview and explaining the deep specialisms of others. It doesnít mean that you have to become a specialist yourself, but itís useful to know when youíre reaching the limits of your own abilities, if only to inform where you go next.

However I think the Dunning-Kruger effect can have a more divisive role. Iím sure weíve all come across the egotistical designer or creative director who rates their own abilities above all else. This approach often leads to really bad design decisions to the detriment of the product or its users.

Iíve seen similar issues in other fields, like developers feeling they are the most qualified people to design the UX because they are expert technology users, or interaction designers believing they will make great visual designers because itís just a case of learning Photoshop right? This is an interesting area where Dunning-Kruger overlaps with the Halo effect to make people think that because they are good at doing one thing really well, they must be good at doing other things equally well.

I think this attitude is also holding a lot of people back. Iíve met plenty of talented practitioners over the years that had the opportunity to be great, if it wasnít for the fact that they already believed they were. A lot of this is environmental. For instance if you happen to be great at creating mid-sized projects or happen to be the best designer in an above average agency, itís easy to think that youíve got it nailed. However put that person in a world-class team or a hugely complex project and watch them struggle.

I think this is why some of the best designers I know are going to work with big Silicon Valley Tech companies. It forces them to move out of their comfort zone and up their game.

For me, the very best practitioners usually exhibit the opposite of the Dunning-Kruger effect, known as the imposter syndrome. With this cognitive bias, people often have so much visibility of the great work and skill going on in their sector, that they never feel they match up. So they quite literally feel that at some stage they will be unmasked as an imposter.

This bias has a number of benefits in our sector as it forces people to up their game and learn new things, while at the same time making them realise that they will never know everything. As such, people with imposter syndrome tend to specialise. It also means that people are incredibly critical of their work and are constantly striving to improve.

However the imposter syndrome also has its negative effects, like never believing that youíre worthy, or giving overdue credit to people demonstrating Dunning-Kruger like behaviour. So in it’s worst manifestation I seen really amazing people stuck in mediocre jobs because they don’t truly believe how great they are.

As such the key learning is to try and develop a well-rounded view of the industry, the skills you have and the skills and expertise of others. So please, no more tweets or articles like this one decrying a particular skill, discipline or job title. It turns out they are very unhelpful, and more often than not wrong.

Posted at February 19, 2014 1:15 PM