UK UX Freelancers Rate Review 2010 – The Inaugural Report

Recently I conducted a survey of the UX Freelancers in the UK. Usually I would leave this kind of thing to our professional bodies, however given that a recent ‘official’ industry survey managed to achieve only 44 responses from UX Freelancers in the UK, I thought it was important that we get a more substantial sample size and verify the findings (and perhaps learn some more about ourselves).

This survey is not intended to be an authoritative source on ‘what to pay a UX Freelancer’ but rather a data point that can be used by freelancers, their clients and relevant recruiters when trying to make an informed decision about a reasonable rate to charge or pay.

One of the key findings has to be that the anecdotal feedback – that UX Freelancers’ day rates are all over the place – is true. This is particularly the case among our less experienced colleagues.

There are certainly some people with very little experience being paid some fairly hefty day rates. At the same time, there are some very experienced people charging extremely reasonable rates. There is no discernible evidence for why some people charge more than others except for a self-perception of expertise and value.

It is my hope that sharing this information will enable us to better self-regulate and make sense of our own relative value in the current market.

The survey opened on November 29 and closed on December 13 2010.

In that time 168 people completed the survey. Many thanks to everyone who who tweeted, emailed freelancers they know and tapped people on shoulders. As far as I know, this is the most extensive survey of UX Freelancers ever done in the UK (probably in the universe).

I’ve taken a comb to the data and I’ve compiled some findings below.

Do feel free to take a look at the data yourself and see what other conclusions you can draw – there are many different ways to sift through the data, it was very hard to choose which way to slice it up.

Firstly – the bit I know you’re all really interested in. What are we charging?

A Summary of UX Freelancer Day Rates 2010
[table id=1 /]

For me, the most interesting thing about the data behind this table is the diversity of rates charged within each ‘category’. There was considerably less geographical impact on rates than I might have expected. There wasn’t much difference between the rates charged by sector. There was only a slight difference in the median rates charged by men and women.

Gender Comparison of Median Day Rate by Experience
[table id=3 /]

I couldn’t find anything logical to explain the diversity, however I do wonder whether how you get your work makes a difference to your day rate (whether you contract direct or go via a recruitment agency for example) – a question for next years survey perhaps.

I’d be interested in any other hypotheses you have that we might be able to test.

A note on the data: as this was the inaugural survey I wanted to not make any assumptions about how we’re charging ourselves out at the moment so I left the ‘rate’ field as a text field – this made analysis quite a pain but it did avoid me making assumptions that could have completely ruined this endeavour. If you want to play with the data you will similarly have to go through this pain to get to the day rate data… sorry!

Out of UK: This refers to UK based UX freelancers who do work on projects that are predominantly based outside of the UK.

So, in the course of exploring the reasons for the diversity in our rates, I was also able to explore another subject I find quite interesting – the intersection of ‘experience’ (years we’ve worked) and ‘seniority’ (our own perception of how expert we are relative to our peers).

Seniority / Experience / Day Rate
[table id=2 /]

(Note that some segments in this table have very small samples so shouldn’t be taken too seriously in isolation)

For me, this table calls out (at least) three interesting things.

Firstly – as a profession, it would suggest that the tipping point at which we consider ourselves ‘expert’ is before the 5yr mark. The progression from ‘entry level’ through ‘mid level’ and onto ‘senior’ seems rather swift to my thinking. This may be an artifact of freelancers particularly, but I suspect this is something we should be cautious of.

Secondly – women don’t start freelancing until they have about 5yrs experience under their belts. Of the 45 female respondents, a mere 13% were freelancing before this 5yr point as compared with almost 40% of the male respondents who were freelancing from the very earliest stages of their career.

Thirdly – as mentioned earlier, your personal perception of your skills and abilities relative to those of your peers (whether you rank yourself as a ‘mid level’ or ‘senior’ practitioner is of vastly more importance than the number of years experience you have behind you. In some ways this makes perfect sense, but it also makes life difficult for potential clients.

Some other nuggets from the survey data:

In the next calendar year do you expect to increase, decrease or not change your day rate?
Q2 Graph

We’re feeling optimistic.
98% of participants intend to maintain or increase their day rate.
50% intend to increase their day rate.

What industry sectors have you primarily worked in this calendar year?
Q4 graph

I thought the representation from Start Ups and Charity was surprisingly strong here.
Other answers included: energy/utilities (3), retail/e-commerce (4), sports (3), travel(2), ad agency, arts, engineering, gaming, multinational corps, music/entertainment, online web giants, restaurant/food, software industry, technology, tourism

Which of these do you regularly contribute to your projects
Q5 Graph

Other answers included: conversion rate enhancement/optimisation (2), social media, experience / service design, training, accessibility, sales, evaluation, search engine optimisation (SEO).

Conversion Rate Enhancement or Optimisation is a new one on me (as a specific job role, that is) but I have to say, I quite like it.

Seniority: Do you consider yourself to be:
Q6 Graph

Predictably, most freelancers consider themselves to be relatively senior.
Other answers included: 
not sure, senior to mid, executive/director level(2), guru (!)

How many years of UX experience do you have?
Q7 Graph

Industry affiliations
Q8 Graph

Considering the importance of networking for freelancers, the proportion respondents who identified as active members of some key industry groups is quite low.

Geography – where do you do most of your work?
Q9 Graph

Unsurprisingly, the bulk of the respondents report doing most of their work in London.

Q10 Graph

Male UX Freelancers significantly outnumber female significantly. The UPA Salary Survey doesn’t report salary by gender so it is not easy to say if this is representative of the general proportionality within our industry or specific to freelancing – would be interesting to know.

Other answers included: Jedi (note: this respondent also answered ‘Guru’ in response to seniority. Apparently we have The Force among us)

Q11 Graph

Unsurprisingly, the bulk of UX Freelancers are aged between 30-40yrs.

A selection of additional comments from respondents

Freelance rates are highly variable, especially when working through a recruitment agency. I often find advertised rates are below what I earn, but then find that after speaking to a potential client they’re willing to pay my expected rate or similar. It seems that advertised rates (by recruiters) are perhaps used to lower expectations of contractors in advance.

There still seems to be a lack of respect for/understanding of experience…my day rate has not increased in 3 years even though experience has…(and it was at the same level from 2000 – 2007)… recruiters won’t touch me once they find out my rate …say I am too expensive…say people can be had for £350 (or less)…(fortunately, at my level i don’t need them much even though they call me)

It would be nice if people went back to talking to references…there are still quite a few amateurs out there on £350/day which makes it bad for the good ones, weakens the whole respect for contribution if UX…

Also seems to be a bit of a fuss about promotion/rock stardom…so the silent craftsperson who mentors on the job across silos and fiefdoms is not even that valued by his community unless he speaks in public or blogs or tweets or in some says “look at me”…kind of what academics have to do which distracts from their alleged purpose – education and mentoring…

It might be useful in future to provide for variable rates, e.g. I charge more for short jobs than long. Here I quoted for long duration jobs. Also education might be interesting. (This comment was made by several participants, something to consider if we do this again next year)

There is sooooo much work about – 2 or 3 recruiter phone calls a day. I have no idea where they get my number from…

There seems to be a lot of people trying to side step into this industry from roles such as project management which seems to be devaluing what we do. These people are expecting the same rates as solid UX’er with years of experience. I think these people are ultimately going to drive the day rate down and I find it quite frustrating.

Senior people are highly in demand in the UK particularly if you have strong sector experience.

Its very difficult getting work in the Midlands as a freelancer… we constantly have to turn to London for work!

As a profession UX suffers from such variable approaches and outputs it’s very hard to get an idea of how to place yourself.

Although a great salary is a good part of being a freelancer, for me it’s more about having flexibility in terms of my time and the type of projects I choose to work on. This is facilitated by good pay, but we should focus on quality of life and work above mere cashflow.

I look forward to more North West based clients embracing usability and conversion optimisation, as well as more UX professionals working in Manchester and the NW to bang the usability and UX drum like it is in London!

In terms of how I operate, I never give ideas away for free – no spec work, free pitching, etc. This has been the single most important aspect to my success in the field – conversations are the most important. Also, I never do work for people I don’t actually like as people. Sounds a bit silly, but as a self-employed person, you can only blame yourself if you’re working for people you don’t like :)

Knowledge is power. Use it wisely. A small rant.
So, there you go. You know what the rest of the UX Freelancers are doing. Go, adjust your rates accordingly (judging by what I’ve seen in the data, there’s a bunch of us who could do a little tweaking as part of our freshen up for the new year!)

This works both ways – there are plenty of people out there who – if they have the experience and skills they claim to – are really undervaluing themselves at the moment.

On the other hand, there is a lot of anecdotal evidence (and some support from this survey) to suggest that there are some of us who are more confident to claim seniority and charge higher rates with less experience.

Now, experience isn’t everything – if you are doing an amazing job and really delivering results for your client then, well done you. If you can’t really see how your client is making back your cost and then a whole lot more, then think carefully about the rates your charging.

Let’s make sure we’re doing what we can to continue to built up the respect that our clients and peers have for us by making sure that we do represent good value to our clients.

And, on that note, I wish you all a productive, creative, inspiring and rewarding 2011.
I welcome your comments, questions etc. below.

Strategic UX – Seeking examples of the good and not so good.

I’m busy writing about Strategic User Experience and I could really use your help.

Right now I’m looking for two things in particular:

  • the dark side: examples of things that are commonly called ‘our strategy’ but are not really strategy at all.

    I think there are plenty of these out there. Some examples:

    1. I’m often shown things that are called ‘our strategy’ but are usually a list of tasks in groups, like, say  ‘Our Social Media Strategy’ with a list of things we’re going to do (make a facebook app, make a twitter widget, etc.)

    2. Another one I often see is an incredibly vague product description something like, ‘we’re doing social mapping’ – again this is not a strategy.Do you have some other examples of things that are currently misconstrued as strategy?

  • the bright side: good ways to keep strategy alive (known, understood, attended to) in an organisation – communicating strategy

    These examples, I fear, may be a little more scarce, but I’d love your help to try to uncover as many good examples as possible. What have you seen/made/used to help an organisation maintain it’s focus on it’s purpose/strategy/mission? (where that purpose/strategy/mission is a real one and not just a marketing soundbite).

    This could be some kind of physical thing, an activity, a tattoo (just kidding… I think) – whatever works to help make sure that people in the organisation know what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, who they’re doing it for.

I’d really appreciate your help compiling two sets of examples and, of course I’ll happily share them back with you here (wherever/however possible, taking commercial sensitivity into account of course).

Add yours to the comments below or email me.

UK UX Freelancer Survey – Initial Data

Thanks to everyone who participated in the UK UX Freelancer survey I’ve been running over the past fortnight. I’m really pleased that we managed to beat the target of 150 participants and have a total of 168 people participating in this survey.

Mostly because the tool allows me, I’d like to share with you the raw data that we’ve collected. It’s kind of interesting, but I would hasten to add that there are some really important filters that we need to add in before we can make any real findings about things like day rate – geography and seniority being, probably, the most important.

I’m going to do some work cleaning up the data and applying some of these filters in the next week or so and then I’ll publish some more useful findings.

Because this is the first time I’ve done this survey, I’ve collected the day rate as a text field – I really wanted to get a sense of what we’re actually charging and this seemed like the best way to do it. Next year, I’ll do it the more sensible way, and we’ll be able to more easily get a pretty graph.

So, have a poke around, don’t get too excited about findings yet, and stay tuned for more interesting thoughts coming soon! Meanwhile, let me know if you’ve got any questions or if there’s anything particular you want me to try to find out for you!

Business savvy designers start with the customer

An excellent thing about writing a book is having the excuse to read. Until recently, I’ve read a lot of people writing about Peter Drucker (a pioneering management theorist), now I’m actually reading his work myself. I recommend you do too.

His book Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices is going down as one of the best User Experience books I’ve read in a long time. He wrote it in 1974.

One of the issues that it is really clarifying for me is something I’ve had a gut feel about for a long time. The role of the commercially or business savvy designer.

What does it mean to be ‘business savvy’ when you’re a designer? For some, it means you have an MBA, you take pleasure in doing SWOT analysis, and you love to spend your afternoon doing some double entry book keeping. For most of us, I think it means that we’re willing to ask for or define and then design for measurable outcomes that the business cares about. Increases in sales, page impressions, things that accountants and managers care about.

While I’m all for helping my client/employer be profitable so that they can continue to pay me and so we can work on more and better projects together, the description above doesn’t really fit well with most of the other aspects of User Experience. All too often, we find ourselves making compromises, or doing things that don’t really make sense, because of these clearly defined business objectives or ‘commercial reality’.

Reading Drucker has helped me to better articulate why this feels so wrong. It’s because it is wrong.

Most of the business people we’re taking orders from are actually doing business wrong. And if anyone can help them, it’s a User Experience person who has a firm grip on how business should be.

Actually, if you read Drucker (and I’ll post you some snippets in a moment), I think you’ll be amazed at how – if business is done the way he advocates – business people and UX people are actually coming from precisely the same place. Working together, doing things the right way, we can actually be firm allies rather than – as is so often the case – being mildly suspicious of each others motives and usefulness to the organisation.

There is so much of the first part of my copy of Drucker’s book highlighted I can hardly choose which bit to share with you. Here are a few pieces I had to underline then make a big highlighter star in the margin about:

To know what a business is we have to start with its purpose. Its purpose must lie outside of the business itself. In fact, it must lie in society, since business enterprise is an organ of society. There is only one valid definition of business purpose: to create a customer.

It is the customer who determines what a business is. it is the customer alone whose willingness to pay for a good or for a service converts economic resources into wealth, things into goods. Whatever the business thinks it produces is not of first importance – especially not to the future of the business and to its success…

What the customer thinks he or she is buying, what he or she considers value is decisive – it determines what a business is, what it produces, and whether it will prosper. And what the customer buys and considers value is never a product. It is always a utility – that is, what a product or service does for him or her. And what is value for the customer is anything but obvious. (pp 56-57)

We really need a value measurement. What economic value does innovation give the customer? The customer is the only judge; he or she alone knows the economic reality. (pp60)

Profit is not a cause but a result – the results of the performance of the business in marketing, innovation, productivity. It is a needed result, serving essential economic functions.Profit is, first, the test of performance – the only effective test… Indeed, profit is a beautiful example of what engineers mean when they talk of feedback, or the self-regulation of a process by it’s own results. (pp65)

With respect to the definition of business purpose and business mission, there is only one such focus, one starting point. It is the customer. The customer defines the business.

Management always, and understandably, considers its product or its service to be important. If it did not, it could not do a good job. Yet to the customer, no product or service, and certainly no company, is of much importance. The executives of a company always tend to believe that the customer spends hours discussing their products. But how many housewives, for instance, ever talk to each other about the whiteness of their laundry? If something is badly wrong with one brand of detergent, they switch to another. Customers only want to know what the product or service will do for them tomorrow. All they are interested in are their own values and wants. Any serious attempt to state ‘what our business is’ must start with these truths about the customers. (pp 72)

The customer never buys a product. By definition the customer buys the satisfaction of a want. The customer buys value. Yet, the manufacturer, by definition, cannot produce a value, but can only make and sell a product. What the manufacturer considers quality may, therefore, be irrelevant and nothing but a waste and useless expense. (p 76)

Maybe I’m unlucky but all too many projects that I come into contact with seem to start with the sales figures. They have noisy shareholders demanding dollar value results in the next three months. They focus on traffic, page impressions, ad revenue, numbers of customers. Yet ask them what the purpose of the business is, what the value to the customer is, and often the response you get is a sigh and a look that makes you feel like you’ve drifted off into touchy-feely-designerland.

Well, no more. Forget ‘design thinking’ and any new-fashioned mumbo-jumbo. And forget being an order taker for sales figures and page impressions. By not focusing properly on customer value, defining their business in relation to customer value, our business people are doing business wrong. Putting the cart before the horse, focusing on the feedback and not the system. And it’s not me that says it, it’s the guys who defined what management is.

(And, for the record, Drucker kept saying pretty much the same thing for the next 20yrs until he died, in 1995 – you reckon you’re frustrated, try being him. He ended up giving up on business and working with non-profits instead).

Yes, its going to be a tough job turning some businesses around. Yes, sometimes you’ll need to give up and go somewhere where people actually want to listen. Working out this customer thing is much harder than setting some sales figures and then pressuring everyone around you to try to meet them… somehow.

But that’s our job, right. The customer thing. Let’s stop feeling bad that we don’t understand all those complicated tables in Excel and how to read a profit and loss table. Let’s focus on what we know – gaining customer insight and designing products and services that deliver value to customers – because more than anything, that’s what business needs.

Do this confidently, and that’s the best way you can ever be a business savvy designer.

It’s a tough mission. Let’s do it together.

I’ve added this book as an idea for London UX Bookclub – vote it up if you’re local and you’d like to talk about this more.