Expertise versus experience: which one is the best?

Stephen Hale
Sreenshotfrom the Lagom playbook

Lagom is a team of proper experts. 

50% of our team have PhDs to prove it. And we have a playbook full of expert user research, delivery, and service design activities that our Drs (and non-Drs) can deploy to solve any given problem.

But regardless of all of the qualifications and specific skills, sometimes the greatest value we offer our clients is our experience: noticing things that we happen to have seen before.

The case for expertise

I’m on record making the case for expertise. When I was a civil servant (and in the context of a departmental change programme) I wrote a blog post arguing for expert rather than generalist teams

I said then that “we don’t want […] enthusiastic amateurs having a go at graphic design, data science or content design, because that’s when we’re at our least expert and our least effective.” Not everyone agreed

More recently, I’ve chosen to follow a more expert career path for myself, doubling down on the specific skills I learned when studying human computer interaction, rather than the more generalist skills I learned as a civil servant.

Day to day, our work at Lagom requires that we continuously demonstrate our expertise. 

We win work by describing our expert skills and activities in 100 word examples and proposals that set us apart from our competitors. And we win repeat work when our expertly delivered research, discovery or alpha activities help our clients to demonstrate that their service meets the Service Standard.

And Lagom discovery projects tend to be most effective when the expertise of our team is matched by the real subject matter expertise of our clients, forming a multidisciplinary team of different types of expert.

The case for experience

But all this conspicuous demonstration of expertise can get a bit wearing. 

On the Lagom Slack the other day,  John shared a link to a blog post about service blueprints (which I won’t link to here). I usually lap these things up, and I thought the post made some interesting observations about maps. 

But the author was so keen to demonstrate his expertise that it made it quite a hard read. To me, the tone felt actively hostile to anyone less expert about service journey maps than the author. 

It made me pause to wonder whether our proposals might sometimes read a bit like that: defensively expert; protesting too much.

It also made me reflect that sometimes, the most valuable thing that Lagom does for our clients is less about our expertise, and more about our experience. 

Sure, our outputs are backlogs, journey maps, blueprints and roadmaps.  But often, the most important moment on a discovery is noticing (and then acting upon) something more general than expert. 

That might just be noticing that two people use different language to describe the same thing, and recognising how that could inhibit their ability to work together.

Or it might be pointing out to a client that their expectations around their own internal finance, commercial or assurance processes are unrealistic (based on our experience of their organisation).

Or it might be making a recommendation not to take any action on our discovery recommendations until wider organisational or political issues are resolved (no matter how compelling the user needs we’ve identified are).

But which one is the best?

Perhaps, as I’ve become a bit older (and a bit more experienced) I’ve become a bit less vehement about the importance of specific expertise, and more inclined to draw on experience. 

But I stand by the importance of specific, expert skills: user researchers deploying their expert user research skills, rather than generalists having a go. 

And I know that when I’m working with other members of the Lagom team, it actually feels like I’m working with experienced experts. I hope that’s how it feels to work with us.

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