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 “I’m a [insert discipline] and I do my own [insert activity] so [insert specialism] is unnecessary or doesn’t exist”.

While it’s great to have people with a broad range of skills and abilities, it’s 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 “Well I’m just going to call myself a Designer/Developer” 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 you’ve 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 I’ve seen product designers, architects or moviemakers talk about their process, the similarities are uncanny. As such it’s no surprise when very experienced people pronounce that’s 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 you’re working on relatively simple projects, it’s 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, it’s 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 you’ve 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 there’s 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 I’m 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 don’t actually exist, but because those individuals just haven’t 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 you’ve ever watched a man try to build a fire, cook a BBQ or put up a shelf you’ll know what I mean.

In it’s most passive state, the Dunning-Kruger effect manifests itself as naivety and may actually be a key driver for learning. After all, isn’t it more enticing to think that if you start learning a new skill, you’ll get good at it quickly, rather than realising that you’re 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 doesn’t mean that you have to become a specialist yourself, but it’s useful to know when you’re 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. I’m sure we’ve 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.

I’ve 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 it’s 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. I’ve met plenty of talented practitioners over the years that had the opportunity to be great, if it wasn’t 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, it’s easy to think that you’ve 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 you’re 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