Some of my favorite conference sessions to speak at are the “Site Clinics”—where the audience members shout the URLs of their own sites and the panel gives them suggestions about what to do. Recently, I was doing one of those sessions and when we brought up the site onscreen, it didn’t take long before I knew what was wrong—Specialist Disease. That’s the subject of this month’s Biznology newsletter.
The Web site up on the screen was an overdesigned mess. Someone decided that no information should fall “below the fold” (which is a useful enough rule for a home page), but the entire site was designed that way. Deep information pages explaining complex financial products to sophisticated audiences had a small tabbed area on the screen that allowed you to click five or six times to get a total of ten paragraphs of information. They had replaced the product specs with a Rolodex. Clearly a few misguided designers had run roughshod over the usability folks, the writers, and anyone else in their path as this site was conceived. To me, this was a clear case of Specialist Disease.
You probably don’t call it by that name, but I bet you’ve seen Specialist Disease at work at your Web site. You are looking at Specialist Disease when Web team members make recommendations to you that are entirely in concert with their training and background but without any critical thinking, and with no understanding that there are other specialties in the world also.
When your authors tell you that your company name needs to be the first word in the title of every page, even though your search marketing suffers because of it, that’s Specialist Disease. When your designers tell you that landing pages must all look the same, even though you know that they each ought to look like the collateral that drives customers to the page, that’s Specialist Disease. When your Webmasters tell you that you can’t start up a blog because there are no corporate standards yet, that’s Specialist Disease.
And the shame of it is that all of these specialists fervently believe that they are doing the right thing. And they are, if you only think within their own narrow specialist channel. But when you apply critical thinking to these situations, you quickly realize that the best practice called for by each specialty in question must yield to the greater good—specialists must compromise their specialties at times, and the best specialists know this.
But it’s very easy to dogmatically follow a set of beliefs that are promulgated by your specialist religion and to castigate naysayers as pagans who don’t understand the true way. What’s more, many professionals see specialization as the easy way to job security because piling up the certifications and working with a community of similar specialists is easier than developing the broad skills that let you make proper trade-offs.
The problem is that we’re in danger of losing the generalists. We talk about the beauty of cross-functional teams, but where are the cross-functional people? Where are the people that have strong backgrounds in several different specialties who can choose the perspective they use for each problem? Cross-functional teams are great, but they require a lot of communication and often result in a contention system where specialists veto and bargain their way to consensus—maybe that results in a good decision, but maybe it doesn’t. It certainly can slow things down, regardless.
Now don’t get me wrong. Specialists are critically important to everything we do on the Web (and just about everything in life), but only when they add their ingredients into a stew, rather than pretending their spices are the whole meal.