Defining Design Generalists
Exploring the skill set of an underrated superpower
What do self-driving cars and community-driven hospitality have in common? From the outside, almost nothing. But over the course of my career—which has included working on driver and self-driving experiences at Uber, and on the guest experience at Airbnb—I’ve learned that designing for a diverse array of products requires many of the same skills. Still, you might wonder: How is it possible for a single designer to go straight from one to the other?
The answer? By being a design generalist.
In the best cases, generalists can be defined as knowing a great amount about a great number of things. In the worst, they can be seen as a “Jack of all trades, master of none.” While specialists have the unique advantage of being able to easily to point to an area of expertise, generalists don’t have that luxury.
Being a design generalist has made me a more confident and adaptable designer—one who’s able to enter into a myriad of spaces and effectively solve problems.
And while many of my peers and colleagues can relate, I’ve realized that there isn’t a strong narrative on this underrated superpower. For me, design generalism boils down to six defining skills.
Design generalists are deeply strategic.
Being strategic starts with knowing where you are and figuring out your long-term North Star vision. Your strategy is the path you’re going to take to get there.
Strategic design means designing for a specific objective. More often than not, that objective is growing a business. But it’s important to recognize that there’s a difference between being strategic by being the conduit between the business and the user, and designing for the business alone.
At Airbnb, our business objective is to sell an offline experience: travel. Airbnb is both an app and a website, but almost the entire experience users have with the product happens in the real world. In order to understand our users’ motivations, it’s imperative that we understand the psychology of why people travel: travel helps you see the world, exposes you to new things, expands your sense of self.
When people come to Airbnb, they’re coming to buy that idea. This is why we take an editorial approach to our product design, focusing on telling stories of what Airbnb will enable you to experience, that you couldn’t otherwise with cookie-cutter travel.
At the end of the day, business-focused design doesn’t have to be nefarious. Designers should always be looking for opportunities to align the needs of the user and the needs of the business. Those opportunities are often found in surprising places, and a strategic mindset will help you make the most of them.
Their work is evidence-driven.
Many designers roll their eyes at a term like “data-driven,” because there are many things data can’t do. It’s not descriptive. It doesn’t communicate a breadth of information, including users’ attitudes and beliefs, their motivations, the source of their confusion when using the product—all the things that comprise the empathic side of design. On the other hand, there are limits to qualitative research, too. A common misconception is that user research exists to validate your assumptions, but with that construct, you’re inherently assuming you’re correct. For that reason, it’s important to approach qualitative research like a scientist, using appropriate methodology to poke holes in all of your assumptions.
At Airbnb, we practice being “evidence-driven,” which is about balancing quantitative and qualitative techniques, and widening perspective beyond the local maxima. An evidence-driven approach is particularly important when designing a global product. It’s where the mantra “the user is not like me” really resonates. Some users may be similar to you, yes, but a user on the opposite side of the world will very likely not be like you.
Last fall, a data scientist on our team shared analysis revealing that travelers from a specific cluster of countries seemed to have different patterns of using Airbnb. Our team discussed amongst ourselves why that might be, which wasn’t very fruitful.
A short time later, we traveled to one of those countries, with a cross-functional group including designers, researchers, engineers, the data scientist, and our product manager. Everyone on this trip brought a slightly different lens—looking at societal context and norms, app performance due to network connectivity issues, competitive landscape, and so much more.
We used participatory design techniques to understand the travel needs of the new and existing guests.
We came back with a rich set of insights and a distilled set of action items ranging from addressing performance issues to redesigning our onboarding experience. This wouldn’t have been possible with data analysis alone, but data was what helped expose the problem, and evaluate the effectiveness of our solutions.
They’re strong storytellers.
As humans, our brains are hardwired for story—which is why storytelling is a critical component of every step of the design process. In the early stages, researchers and designers use storytelling to illustrate problems that need to be solved. These stories can be used as tools to help stakeholders empathize with users and to align team members on key pain points.
Later, when exploring design directions, stories can be used as anchors to evaluate potential solutions. With a strong user story as a backdrop, it’s easier for teams to immerse themselves in that user’s perspective. In these cases, stories help bring your designs back to the human problems you’re solving.
In a customer-facing context, storytelling is less about what the product does and more about why it does it. It’s about communicating how the things that people want in their lives align with the mission of your product. At Airbnb, this has meant moving away from the transactional (“We want to make it easy to find a place to stay”), and cultivating an approach that focuses on stories of a world where anyone can belong anywhere. Thoughtful storytelling helps us inspire people to use our product through the lens of community, adventure, and connectedness.
They’re systems thinkers.
In our world, storytelling helps make complex products easier to understand, and more importantly, relatable. But as designers of complex products, the skill of systems thinking is equally essential. Systems thinking means understanding that under the surface, nothing is ever as simple as the story being told.
When you’re designing for technology, hardly anything you do is static. While it’s muscle memory for many designers to print stuff out and pin it on the wall, that isn’t how the products we’re dealing with work. At Airbnb, many of our users start their planning on desktop, for example, and pick up their phone later to respond to a message from their host or to view check-in instructions. In these scenarios, “user flows” are not linear journeys, which means we have to think about the dynamic nature of how people plan and experience their lives.
Systems thinking is remembering that the flows or pages we design will be translated into dozens of languages, or consumed via assistive technology. It’s understanding that in order to create important features to our guests, sometimes you need to invest in tools and education for hosts. It’s recognizing that your product might be used at an exciting time, like a birthday or a wedding, or at a very stressful time, like looking for housing after a wildfire or as a refugee starting over in a brand new country. Above all, it’s understanding the complexities that exist inherently within the systems we design, and appreciating that there are as many ways to use our product as there are users themselves.
They’re highly collaborative.
Designers need to be strong peers to our cross-disciplinary partners. After all, a product can only be successful if it unites great design with strong engineering and business strategy. This is why developing as a design leader at a technology company is often about building your skills outward, beyond what is traditionally considered the discipline of “design.”
During the design process, pairing up with interdisciplinary minds allows you to shift from a single designer deciding more or less how something looks, to a group of interdisciplinary team members collectively determining how it works.
At Airbnb, recent changes in design tools have made this sort of collaboration easier. Tools like Figma dramatically change how we work with cross-functional partners, by opening up the design collaboration process earlier, and ensuring that feedback isn’t limited to whomever is in the room during a design review. The thought of an engineer accessing Figma and tearing apart early designs scares many designers, but it’s all in the name of making more informed decisions, and soliciting more ideas from diverse viewpoints early and often.
They’re extremely adaptive.
The final defining skill of a design generalist is learning how to learn. Being open to learning allows you to build a robust set of tools and problem-solving methodologies over time. It also forces you to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, which is invaluable when you find yourself in situations where you may not be an expert on day one.
When I first joined the self-driving team at Uber, for instance, I experienced a huge amount of imposter syndrome. I came with zero experience in anything automotive-related. I secretly wondered: how am I qualified to design in this environment?
I learned quickly that my inexperience was an advantage, particularly in a nascent industry, and that the silver lining of imposter syndrome was that it kept me on my toes. I was quick at learning, unafraid to ask questions, and more importantly, I came to this space with a fresh lens, unbiased about the industry we were rethinking.
Not long ago, many designer’s sole responsibility was to design the way something looks. That’s still an important aspect of the craft of design. As the industry has evolved, however, our processes have become more complex. We’re thinking about multiple platforms and dimensions of our products. It’s essential to approach these new developments with our eyes open, ready to learn.
If this excites you, that’s great. The need for these sorts of skills is only going to increase with the development of new technologies—and it’s inevitable that as a designer, you’re going to face challenges that require you to think about things you’ve never thought about before. The field is constantly changing. There will always be more to learn. And while you may not consider yourself a specialist, I think you’ll come to realize that being a strong generalist is pretty special in itself.