The Benefits of Specialization for Digital Product Outcomes

Multi-colored puzzle pieces scattered randomly on the left, but put together to form a cohesive block on the right side of the image
Kyle Southerland

UX Developer

Kyle Southerland

When it comes to the discussion about generalists versus specialists, it’s no surprise that technical skills are at the forefront. They’re the tools that help us get work done and they’re probably the quickest to run down on a resume or contract.

But what if I told you that there are benefits of specialization that can’t be seen on those same resumes or contracts? And that it’s only in the day to day that you can see them come to fruition?

After all, even though Dwight Schrute thought it was important enough to include martial arts skills on his resume, you never would have known he could raise and lower his cholesterol at will unless you worked with him.

First Impressions

When I came to DockYard to join the UXD team, I was focused solely on what I thought the individual and, more specifically, technical benefits of specialization would be.

It was an opportunity to focus on the technical areas I enjoyed and that would, in turn, help me to improve as a developer and deliver higher-quality work for our clients.

At a team level, it makes for a better workflow: It leads to improved efficiency, and higher-quality results.

As I began settling in, I also found out that our client engagements can be quite different. Some engagements may require training and support. Others might require a full team delivery where a team of DockYard designers, engineers, testers, and business partners work to provide a solution from initial concept all the way to implementation.

And others can be staff augmentation. Here we work with client teams to add bandwidth to high-priority features, explore proof of concepts when client teams may not have the time, add a little polish here and there, and sometimes simply do the small things to keep the lights on.

Over time, it became clear that due to the work of DockYarders past and present, DockYard had established a great reputation with the client. That level of trust, I found, would also lead to interesting work and more opportunities to show our value, as I’ll discuss a little later.

Why Soft Skills Matter Too

Between daily workloads and meeting schedules, client teams can be extremely busy and so we make every effort to value their time and make interactions meaningful.

As a DockYarder, it also means that, at least on my project, I have more time to focus on the work and learning about the client because we aren’t obligated to attend as many meetings.

As I began working and getting into the flow of things, I realized that this newfound time provided other benefits, too.

I had more time to understand the client at a deeper level, for one. I could also build better relationships with the client teams and take the time to find the resources I needed when clients weren’t available.

Understanding The Macro

By having more time to dig into what it is that a company does and how the work fits into the bigger picture, I’m able to understand things at a more macro level. I can build with a forward-thinking mindset, instead of churning out features and bug fixes. It helps to prevent the, “I wish I’d known that was coming or I would have done it this way” hindsight that too often holds up a project.

Seeing things from a high level also helps to improve planning or shifting priorities midstream, because you have a better view of what’s coming in the near future and how that affects long-term goals.

When a lot of work is shifting around, it allows you to prioritize the appropriate work. It’s a sort of, “If we’re going to be doing X, is Y really as important right now, and should we focus more on Z?” scenario.

Building Relationships

Learning the right people, departments, and resources removes the burden on certain client staff because they don’t need to act as a go between for you and others.

You can reach out to people directly, which has the added benefit of closing the feedback loop and potentially getting you to your answer or needed resource more quickly.

This might be working with content teams to ensure the proper images or video are being provided. It could also be working with editorial teams to finalize copy when a tight deadline is approaching and you need to get it into the next build.

Another benefit is that it provides the opportunity to ask follow-up questions on your own and frees up the PO or PM so they can focus on other priorities.

As a UXDer, nothing illustrates the point above more than a pairing session with a designer. Not only can you establish a better relationship, but you’re both able to see design changes in real time.

It may be moving elements around to improve the responsiveness of the page when resizing the browser or tweaking colors to stay on brand while still providing the appropriate levels of accessibility.

The two of you can immediately see what does and does not work and it’s far more efficient than the throw-it-over-the-wall workflow some companies use.

Building these relationships can have the added benefit of helping others understand what certain disciplines focus on.

If team members depended on the client to outline roles and responsibilities, or are only familiar with the latest trends in the job market, they may have no concept of UXD versus a JavaScript engineer or front-end developer.

Inter-team relationships can help to ensure that you are receiving the appropriate work and spending less time reshuffling assignments. It also lets the client know who the go-tos are when particular questions arise.

Gathering Resources

When it comes to UXD, understanding design systems, approaches, and the location of resources like design specifications and feature requirements can be extremely beneficial. Knowing where the appropriate resources are reduces the need to lean on client teams—who aren’t always available—and improves the ability to work with limited guidance.

Sometimes that lack of availability also leads to work with a certain level of ambiguity.

It’s a common scenario where there’s something that was needed yesterday, but time is short and so is everyone’s availability. By knowing where everything is, there’s a better chance of delivering exactly what was expected and, in some cases, exceeding expectations.

Building Trust

As you continue to demonstrate an increased level of client domain knowledge and relationships continue to grow, you may find that you’re also building trust with client employees. It may set up scenarios where you become a source of more important feature work as opposed to simple watering and feeding.

This could be a scenario like the one I alluded to earlier and recently experienced with another DockYarder.

The client team had a feature that had fluctuated in priority and it unexpectedly came to the top of the list. Due to the timing, there was no one on the client side that could take on the work, but rather than push it out further, they brought it to us because they were confident in our ability to get it done and deliver a high-quality result.

They only expected a proof of concept so the requirements were a little fuzzy, but because we understood their engineering and design practices and knew where to find the resources we needed, we were able to exceed their expectations and provide an almost production-ready solution.

You might also find that, because of your specialization, you’re looked to as a subject matter expert in your area. Instead of simply receiving certain tasks because you’re good at a thing, you’re asked to participate in important discussions related to new features and future state planning.

Out of Sight, Peace of Mind

At the end of the day, it’s important to create a relationship where our clients are as comfortable with us as they are with their own employees. And while we may not be as visible as those employees, they can still rest easy knowing that work is being done and it’s done at the highest levels of quality.


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