The Full Stack Folly

First there were full-stack developers. I wonder which bright person came up with that idea? Someone from the annals of a procurement department whispered into the ear of an over ambitious freelancer perhaps. No matter, whoever be the culprit, the damage has been truly been done. Combining multiple coding skillsets into one role has become the norm. As you can take, I am not a fan for full-stack developers. Why you ask? Well its simple logic, it is very difficult to compress the kind of skillset of different developers into one person. It’s like asking a person to learn different languages and then write prose like Shakespeare with it. While there may be things shared across languages like grammar, sometimes two languages are poles apart that one person mastering two or four is madness. Today it seems UX faces a similar paradigm and problem. Though not quite in the same boat. I call it the Full-Stack Folly. Master of all, resources of one.

How much experience do you need anyway?

When it comes to coding, the depth of experience does matter. Sure your front end works (spotlessly most of the time) but if you happened to lift the hood, you might just faint if you haven’t got a coder who knows his craft.

Apart from the expertise of writing clean code, there is also a problem of the number of hands that can finish the job and the time it would take. Imagine that you need to put up a WordPress site and you have a lot of PHP work and HTML work to be done. Even if you did have a Full-Stack developer who knew both, there is no way he is going to take half the time. In fact, he is probably going to take more than twice that. The plus point perhaps could be argued to be closer integration.  

If you look at job ads for full-stack developers and look at the kind of experiences that companies demand and the years of experience requested you realise that something doesn’t quite tally. Not only are they supposed to be mavens of their craft across a plethora of coding languages, they now need to be well-versed in things that aren’t really the developer’s job. Like design for example. Or UX. Or client management. Or pitching projects. The list goes on, and on. Unrealistic.

That said, it’s not all bad. A full-stack developer is ideal for the position of a digital team lead. The logic being that they probably have the practical understanding needed to skirt the scoping of projects and being able to cherry pick the right resources to execute them. This is the person you want in charge of your development team. Not quite a creative technologist, but a mastermind behind executing and rolling out your everyday digital work. A mastermind behind driving CMS projects, front-end development and who can handle the odd app or microsite or two.

Why UX today is no better.

I am beginning to feel that UX today faces the same kind of problem that Full-Stack developers, HTML coders and every other programmer has probably faced early in the recent past. Many teams are trying to collapse UX roles into other roles, most notably design. While UX might not have traditionally been the purview of designers, shrinking budgets and scope mean that this load often falls on the person you really want focussed on churning out eye-catchy and user friendly designs. What’s more the bean counters may feel that UX is more talk than show. How do you quantify the man-hours put into ‘hallway UX research’ where you haven’t recruited external panels and need to bill the effort to your highly discerning clients? It’s like telling your client that the four jpegs that were produced for a digital campaign ate up half the client’s budget (based on a true story I’ve been told). But wait, we’re charging you for how we think we should make the jpegs in addition to all the hours and craft taken to execute the jpegs as well.  

So who should do UX anyway?

Ok let’s say you can’t quite find the perfect candidate that has been doing user research, running focus groups and working out wireframes and proto-types for years. What do you do? The established approach regardless of whether it makes sense is that the already overworked designer should add more value to his plate. Giving them less time to perfect their craft. The rise of the full-stack UX designer isn’t imminent, it’s here. Most agencies feel that they can train designers to take on the additional UX duties.

There is a dash of practicality and pragmatism as well. I think it boils down to the final prototypes being shown to the clients. It could be argued that the designers are more well- equipped to churn these out and they are more spatially aware of the final output requirements.

But since UX is primarily research I would consider an alternative is to get the digital planners to do this. Tad tricky if the planners have lofty ideals and don’t want to get their hands dirty with wireframes and proto-types. While planners can help with the initial research, designers will need to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with them for the final proto-types and outputs. Might not go down well if key design choices are established through UX research by the planners and boxing in the creative output to a particular framework. After all the senior creative management tends to be territorial. Even the best of them. I should know I’ve spent enough years as a creative to tell tales.

In the end will it be how much money can be milked from UX will determine the kind of talent a company may employ. Dedicated UX practitioners aren’t exactly Unicorns. Nor are they cheap with the current focus. Those that bring both UX and executional prowess are the top of the pyramid. Head hunters are likely to find that the middle of the pyramid are people who have played many hats in small digital teams with UX being one of them. The bottom of the pyramid will be freshly minted UX talent. Which in a few years time will be challenged by the demand for voice and VR / AR talent.

The shape of things to come

The Full Stack Folly at the end of the day is the balance between expertise, money in the bank and the volume of the work. There may already be full-stack’ UX positions but not exactly the blend you envisioned. Yes they might be designers. They could also be writers, or account management folk as well. It really depends on what their past experience has been on the projects that they have worked upon. Which is why head-hunters ask for portfolios that show the entire thought process of wireframe to final execution. Truth be told I wouldn’t be surprised if this talent is probably reverse engineering this now as they don’t have wireframes of old. Hiring managers however should be encouraged to evaluate each talent’s digital understanding and role in both research, planning and execution.

While Full Stack UX talent may become the norm just like their coding brethren the reader can take heart. After writing this article I came across another article about why Polymaths are successful and I must reconsider that some of those arguments can translate into a case made for the Full Stack talent. However it ultimately  all depends on your production deadlines and needs. You can rest assured that there will be always opportunities to farm out work to UX research agencies and freelance UX researchers for a more detailed analysis or when the pipeline is full. An opportunity for the army of digital nomads waiting out there.