The UX Unicorn Myth

A lot of job ads these days call for what’s called the unicorn or the person who can just do everything about user experience in the project. But honestly, just as the actual unicorn is a mythical beast, so the unicorn is a mythical employee because it is no one person who can be great at all these very different things that constitute a user experience. And so by way of analogy, I’m showing you here the results from the decathlon competition as the 2016 Olympics.

So we have the results from the gold medal winner in decathlon compared to the gold medal winners in each of the 10 individual disciplines. You can just see how much better the specialists are compared to the generalist. For example, in Javelin, throw that decathlon winner through a little bit less than 60 meters, whereas a specialist javelin gold medal winner through more than 90 meters. And so 50 percent better javelin throwing performance. So in case Javelin throws are critical business parameter, which is probably only was for the ancient Greek army. But if it were, you would get 50 percent better performance by hiring specialists as opposed to hiring generalists who can also throw the javelin. And similarly, in user experience, if you hire a dedicated user researcher, somebody who specializes in how to do research, they’re going to give you the really deep insights into user behavior and they’re going to derive the really great recommendations for how to drive your project forward.

Or if you hire a dedicated interaction designer, then the workflow will be so much smoother, the interface will just be so much better designed. Or if you hire a professional information architect, then your website will be really well structured as opposed to somebody who, like, dabbles in I.A. and decide it cannot be nearly as good. And the same is true for all these different many different disciplines that constitute user experience. If you have one guy and they know a little bit of everything, you know, maybe they’re pretty good. But it’s still a prescription for mediocracy in your product compared to having a team of people who are great at specializing in each component. That’s how you get excellent user experience.

The Magical Number 7 and UX

Let’s play a little game, I will show you a bunch of letters on a screen, you’ll see them for a few seconds, then I will remove them.

Now, write them down. How many did you remember?

If you’re like most people, it’s probably about seven plus or minus two.

This is what the magical number seven refers to, it’s the capacity of humans, short term memory, the amount of information that people can remember without study in rehearsal. Now, let’s play this game again with a different set of letters. Now write down as many as you can remember, feel free to pause the video in order to do so.

How many letters did you recall this time?

Most people remember around seven words in experiments like this. That means about three times seven.

It was 21 letters, a lot more letters than in our first experiment.

Why is that how come the size of your short term memory suddenly got bigger? Back in the late 1950s, the psychologist George Miller reviewed several studies of human memory and noticed that in all of them, people could remember seven plus or minus two items, hence the magical number seven plus or minus to the title of his paper. But for Miller, this was an interesting part, this being the era of information theory. He was fascinated by the fact that the unit, the type of items that could be remembered was different in different studies and some studies, people remember seven letters in other seven numbers or words. Thus, he figured that the capacity of short term memory shouldn’t be measured in bits, the traditional unit for information, but rather in many units called chunks. And these units could be as big as one would want. So that means you can increase the size of your short term memory as long as you group items into meaningful chunks, characters into words, words and sentences, digits in numbers and so on, a process known as chunking.

It’s a principle that he may have encountered before when you try to memorize information.

Now, keep in mind the major implication of the magical number seven is that you can expect people to keep roughly seven items of information in their short term memory.

So they want to remember things like random coupon codes, links that they may have visited before, password requirements or lots of instructions.

Now, the magical number seven is often invoked as an argument in use wrongly. I’ve heard people using it to argue for seven items in a menu bar or in a pull down menu, seven bullet points on a slide, seven point rating scales. The truth is, no human short term memory capacity is not relevant for these tasks. You’re not supposed to remember all options in the menu or all the bullets on a slide or all the points on a rating scale. They are normally visible or accessible, and there could be other good reasons for which you may not want to have too many.

But the magical number seven is not one of them.

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