in UX Freelancing

10 tips for UX Freelancing

Every now and then I’m asked for advice on getting started as a UX Freelancer. I tend to say the same thing most times, so I thought I’d put them together here for future reference and for the benefit of anyone else who’s thinking about making the jump (or who has made the jump and wonders whether we see the world the same way….)

I offer no guarantees about any of these tips, all I can say is that they have worked for me and that they form the basis of my ongoing approach to UX Freelancing. Some of these I’ve known since the beginning, some I’ve learned, most often the hard way.

In presenting these tips I am speaking particularly to those people who think of freelancing as I do – working for multiple clients on multiple projects (not always at the same time) in the course of a year, not taking a series of long term full time contracts.

If you are also a freelancer and would like to offer additional or alternative advice please do feel free to add your comment below.

1. Why are you doing this?

Why are you choosing to freelance? Is it for a better balance between work and the rest of your life? For riches and fame? To have more control over the work you do? There are lots of reasons why people choose to freelance (some of the more or less based in reality!). Think about why you’re doing this and then think about what decisions you’re going to need to make in order to achieve this outcome.

It is crazy how many people start out freelancing imagining spending Tuesday afternoons in the local cafe reading – because they can. Then end up working more hours than they’ve ever worked in their life and never going anywhere near a cafe or a book.

What are your ‘project goals’ for becoming a freelancer? Make some ‘golden rules’ that will ensure you can achieve these goals. You’re in control now, so be proactive about it and make life/work what you want it to be.

2. Finding work: Build a good network, do good work

The best way to get good work is to make friends with other UX Freelancers who are good, get busy, and want to find a good home for work they can’t do.

Actually, I don’t get much work this way personally, but I pass on quite a bit and see several other good UX Freelancers doing similar.

The *really* best way to get good work is to do good work, and to have other people talk about your good work to others who may wish to hire you. I think this is how I’ve gotten most of my work over the years and I hope it continues this way.

(You may have noticed that I do not recommend contacting recruiters, not even for ‘safety’ for your first job. All evidence I have seen indicates that you are unlikely to get good/interesting UX work as a freelancer from recruiters and you are more likely to be paid less than you’re worth.

Although, I have also heard evidence that recruiters over charge for UXers, this has only ever come from someone looking to hire, not be hired. If the only way you can get work to start your freelancing career is through recruiters I’d be tempted to re-think freelancing altogether).

3.  Be visible.

Being a secret freelancer is not a good strategy. There are several different ways you can be visible, choose the one or more you find most comfortable. Options include but are not limited to: write a blog, be active on Twitter, speak at conferences & other UX events (large and small), attend events and talk to people, contribute answers on UX related email lists, forums, Quora etc.

When being visible, the best way to do so is to contribute to the body of knowledge of your UX community. We don’t really want to hear how fabulous you are (I’d rather hear that from your previous clients or colleagues). We would like to know what you’ve seen that’s interesting lately, why it’s interesting, what you learned from a project etc.

You don’t need to be a massive self-promoter. I’d advise against blatant, unhelpful, self promoting, but being visible (particularly being digitally visible, Google-able with positive and relevant search results ensuing) is important.

I find that by sharing my work, my process and my learnings (as much as I’m commercially able to) I negate the need for preparing and maintaining a CV or shiny portfolio. Your mileage may vary.

4. Position yourself.

If I know what kind of projects you really like (and are really good at doing) and I hear of a project like it, I will think of you immediately. Apply the same approach to positioning yourself as you would to your projects.

Don’t try to be everything to everyone, think about the kind of work you’d rather do and let people know that’s what you want. You might end up doing all kinds of different things, but you’ll become a go-to person for your particular niche, and that way, stay top of mind.

5. Don’t take work you don’t really want to do.

It is really hard to say no to work when you’re freelancing. Really hard. It takes a while to believe that work will actually come to you when this project is over and that you will be able to pay your rent/mortgage etc. Don’t panic and take a project you really don’t want to do. There are two reasons for this:

Firstly: It’s really hard to do good work on a project you don’t care about. The quality of your work is critical to your future success as a freelancer. You can’t afford to do a bad job (not if you can possibly avoid it).

Secondly: It is a little known fact that the universe conspires against freelancers who ignore this tip. Just as you’ve become contractually obligated to work on the most boring, tedious project ever for weeks into the future, you will be offered the Project Of Your Dreams. And you’ll have to turn it down (or, at least, you should – skiving out on projects at the last moment or worse, when you’ve just started, because you’ve got a better offer is pretty bad form). I can’t begin to tell you how awful this feels.

6. Don’t overcommit.

See above re: it’s hard to say no to work. Also, projects always take longer than you think they’re going to. This can lead to working every hour god gives you. This is not good.

It is not sustainable to work ridiculous hours indefinitely. You will probably have to do it sometimes, don’t make it a way of life. Your mental health, family/social life and the quality  of your work will all suffer. Even if you say ‘screw my mental health and family’, the quality of your work is the indicator of both the volume and interestingness of your future work. Don’t do anything to jeopardise that. (Like, say, working at 3am on a Saturday morning when you’ve already clocked 80hrs or more that week).

Try to over estimate the time you’re going to need to do a project (then you may just get it done in time) and do allow yourself some downtime to remain sane and relatively fresh.

7. Don’t over complicate the legal/financial aspects.

When you’re starting out (in the UK at least) all you need to do is register as self employed. You don’t need to register for VAT immediately (although it does feel weird charging no VAT and clients do ask questions), you don’t need an accountant or a limited company immediately. Take it easy and scale things up as you need to.

Do make sure that you are tracking your time and your invoices properly. There are millions of options for this. I have used FreeAgent since I started out because it allows me to do estimates, invoices, time tracking, maintain a client list, and automates a lot of my tax and it comes with a pretty delicious user experience. It’s not the cheapest option but it has worked well for me (and now that I have an accountant, they can log in via an ‘accountant login’ and get everything they need automatically). Paired with an iPhone app called Out Of Pocket which integrates to FreeAgent and lets me capture my expenses on the fly, I’m  much better at my accounts than I ever thought possible. Accounts are almost fun.

Except for the tax-paying bit. (On that note, don’t spend your taxes, or you’ll find tax time rather painful. (Speaking from experience here)).

Get Professional Indemnity insurance. Hopefully you’ll never need it. Some clients will require it.

Don’t stress out about contracts, stress out more about choosing the right clients and managing their expectations by communicating well throughout the project. You *really* don’t want to get down to enforcing a contract and in most cases, the cost involved in pursuing things legally outweighs any financial benefit.

I probably shouldn’t admit this but the only time I tend to sign a contract with a client is if they have one they want signed. Most projects I do without a contract. I work hard to make sure my client understands how we’re going to work together and what they’re going to get – almost invariably this changes as we get to know each other and our project better.

If things start feeling dodgy, in any way – stop working and start talking. Invoice regularly, make sure you are going to be paid. If you don’t think a client is going to come good with the cash, ask for a payment upfront (again, this is something I do rarely tho’ I know it is standard for others), and put them on short payment terms. Or better still, don’t work with them. Writing off invoices is very depressing.

Be aware when invoices are overdue and don’t be shy about chasing them up with a friendly but timely email.

In my experience, if you choose good clients, you don’t need to worry too much about getting paid.

8. Value yourself appropriately.

When analysing the recent UX Freelancers Rate Report data, the thing that most struck me was how apparently random our dayrates are.

A lot of really good people are charging a lot less than they should and a few are apparently charging more than they’re probably worth. Now we have some idea of what we’re all charging – be informed and charge yourself out appropriately.

Once you’ve set your rate, keep track of how many people simply accept it and how many wince and complain at the rate. (Exclude recruiters from these calculations). If more than 1 in 4 wince, you may need to lower your rate a little. If fewer than 1 in 4 wince, you may need to put your rate up.

9. Don’t do freelance work and look after small children simultaneously.

See above re: overcommitting. I’ve tried it. It’s horrible for everyone involved (you, your client, your kids). Get childcare (and curse that it’s not a deductable expense).

10. Take the lead.

When I think about the (thankfully only occasional) projects I’ve worked on that didn’t go as well as I’d like them to, it was almost invariably because I was looking to my client to take the lead, to tell me what they wanted to do, and then for me to act on instructions. In every case, whether the client *thinks* they know what they want or if they haven’t a clue, you should be proactive in setting out the process or project approach that you think will give the best outcomes and make the best use of resources.

Your client is almost always paying a premium for your services as a freelancer – this may be because they’re desperate and this is the only way they can get the UX work done, but hopefully it is because they are looking to you to bring some specialist skills to their team. Give them their money’s worth and make the most of your time with them by being proactive and helping them use you well.

So, that’s it. Almost everything I’ve learned about UX freelancing that I can remember today. Let me know how much of this resonates with you or not, what I’ve missed (I know there’s lots!)

  1. I heartily concur with Leisa’s advice. For me the most important is #4. Work really hard at having an “elevator pitch” for what you do or want to do. The more concisely you can communicate with potential clients what you can and cannot do, the better it is for everyone. There are few things worse than getting hired, getting engaged, having work products expected and THEN finding out they really did think you were going to code the front-end in some proprietary scripting language last used for ENIAC. (I mean, you had an inkling of that but thought, “No, surely they don’t mean what those words they’re saying really mean.”) Yes, they did.

  2. A good top ten there Leisa. I’ve learn’t a few of those the
    hard way too. I’m a UX research specialist (#3 Self promotion) and
    many UX people (working at agencies) also ask me about freelancing.
    I’m quick to point out that while you’re at an agency you have the
    luxury of account managers, sales people and a director out there
    schmoozing, pitching for, scoping and winning projects, and often
    handling the client so that you can get on with doing your best
    work. When you’re freelance, you’ve got to be all of these people,
    as well as doing your best work. (I agree, it’s the quality of your
    work which gets you more of the same) …so, (Unless you’ve got a
    client spoon feeding you project after project) you become a one
    person consultancy, sales, marketing, accounts, THE LOT. .. you’re
    running a business and every move you make is a part of that.
    Speaking at events, blog posts, proposals, scoping projects,
    coffees with potential clients etc. are not always time that you
    get paid for and can easily double your usual working week. You
    can’t afford to mix these activities up with thew project you’re
    billing by the day for, so #6 is very important (Don’t overcommit)
    … I recommend scheduling a few days off after projects (or even a
    week if it’s been an intense one) to take care of these things
    otherwise you’ll burn out. …and that’s not billable time
    either.

  3. Great post! I do a lot of the things mentioned and it’s great to have a refresher. I agree with your thoughts in #2. I don’t get much work from other freelancers, but I try to know alternatives for my customers. Also, with regards to recruiters, a recruiter that understands UX and gets good UX opportunities is rare. One way to find out if they’re looking to make money or looking to make a good placement is to ask why UX is valuable and how they sell it to their clients (if at all).

  4. Great post, Leisa–though I’d disagree with your view on contracts. In their most basic form they define scope of work and payment terms–or at least mine do. I can’t imagine working without one in place. Perhaps we define ‘contract’ differently on this side of the Atlantic? :)

    In my experience I’ve found that the clients who’ve balked at signing contracts have been the ones that I have the most difficult time with. In fact, potential clients that give me a runaround over a contract tend to be the ones that I walk away from.

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