Friday, July 13, 2007

Are Usability Specialists better than Generalists?

Discussing Jakob Nielsen's notion that specialists are better than generalists ...

"For the past couple of weeks, I've been stewing a bit over a piece in Jakob Nielsen's newsletter, in particular a short bit suggesting that, when it comes to usability, specialists are better than generalists. Now, I understand what his point was, and I'm probably being a bit hypersensitive, but as someone who considers myself a generalist, this particular bit of elitism always rubs me the wrong way.

On the theoretical level, one fact that I became firmly convinced of while pursuing my Ph.D. in cognitive psychology is that we humans are capable of learning much more (and much more broadly) than conventional wisdom suggests. Unfortunately, our misconceptions about the nature of our own capacity limits is partly the fault of psychologists. We have had a tendency in the modern era to model our understanding of the brain after systems or machines created by humans. Not surprisingly, much of the modern cognitive model of the brain is based in part on computer hardware. While these analogies are often useful, they also tend to introduce unfounded assumptions. For instance, most people tend to think of the storage capacity of the brain like a hard drive: fill it up with stuff of Type X and you won't have any room left for stuff of Type Y.

Unfortunately, this analogy is so easy to grasp (memory = hard drive) that it's taken us decades to realize that it's almost completely false. The storage mechanisms of the brain are complex and "holographic" in nature, and one consistent finding of learning research is that new knowledge is easier to build on old knowledge. Of course, this means, in part, that specialists tend to become efficient learners in their areas of study. It also means, though, that we have the capacity for broader learning, across multiple areas, without reducing our capacity for depth in any one area. In addition, cross-disciplinary learning allows us to draw novel connections that might not be available to someone who focuses on a single skill."    (Continued via debabblog)    [Usability Resources]


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