Lately I’ve been asking the same set of questions to UX people.
How many weeks in the past year did you feel as though you were doing the right kind of work, on the right kind of project. How often do you feel as though you’re really being properly utilised, that you’re using your skills and experience in a way that is really helping companies make a difference?
Based on my own experience, my hypothesis was that the answer would be pretty depressing. And, with a few exceptions, it has been.
At a time where companies are crying out for User Experience people to come help them solve problems – and there are so many problems to solve – the people who are at the coal face generally feel as though they’re either not able to work effectively, or they are doing great work but tackling the wrong problems.
What a tragic waste of talent, of time, of money, of life.
The last few months I’ve seen a lot of movement in the UX field – people moving in house out of agencies, starting their own companies, leaving freelancing – it feels like we’re generally a little restless at the moment, and it’s a feeling I’m familiar with. I need to stop taking briefs and trying to reshape them, and instead to work with companies to give them the tools to make better decisions, to give better briefs, to allow teams to work together more productively. We need to get out of the design or UX department to solve these problems.
In workshops and conference talks I’ve done recently I’ve waxed lyrical about the Customer Journey Map and how it has, without doubt, been the thing that has most transformed my practice as a User Experience practitioner over the past few years. In particular it does three things that immediately accelerate an organisation’s customer focus:
Makes the customer experience understandable and addressable – even for quite small companies, understanding what it is like to be your customer at all points of the customer lifecycle and across all channels can be difficult. Creating a customer journey map helps make the big picture of customer experience understandable so that even as we deep dive on specific projects, we’re maintaining a consistent and coherent experience at all times. By picking out the critical moments of truth and focusing on those touchpoints, we make significant improvements much more achievable and measurable.
Unites the silos, ignites customer focus – often organisations are filled with people who are passionate about customer experience but who are functionally separated from each other and have difficulty communicating effectively and aligning their efforts across the organisational silos. A customer journey map gives them a focal point and a shared language and way of communicating the insight they have and activity within their functional group, improving the organisation’s ability to maximise the efforts and expertise of its customer champions.
Visibly connects business value and customer value – Peter Drucker tells us that the purpose of the business is to create value for our customers and that profit is the feedback we get from doing it well, but the connection between customer and business value is often difficult to see in today’s organisations. A customer journey map provides a way to show how the critical moments of truth for customers – the touchpoints that should be most thoughtfully designed – almost always maps to places where money flows in or out of an organisation. Customer journey maps provide a way to measure CX metrics that directly impact the organisations bottom line.
I’m not giving up the usual research, design and strategic UX work I’ve done over the years, but I’d like to spend more of my time working on making Customer Journey Maps with clients and helping to focus their energies on the UX projects that will really make a difference for their organisation, and also to bring some more ‘design’ into the world of Customer Experience (CX) (yes, CX is different to UX, and yes, I totally understand how confusing that sounds).
So, if your organisation needs some customer experience mapping done, or you hear of someone who does, I’d love it if you’d send them my way. With a bit of luck and good management I can do my bit to help make sure more UXers are working on real and important UX projects in the coming years.
Those who don’t follow me on Twitter (don’t worry, I understand. I’d probably unfollow me sometimes too!) may not know about two new UX related initiatives I’m involved in at the moment. Thought you might find them interesting.
UX Tuesday: is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I do a lot of UX Consulting work with start ups but a project by project engagement model is sometimes a little frustrating. UX Tuesday is a monthly, affordable Pay As You Go UX Clinic for Start Ups where founders and their teams can come to learn more about User Experience and to work on some of their own UX Challenges with a team of really experienced User Experience Consultants.
We’re currently running a survey to learn more about what Start Ups are doing and what they want to know about User Experience – complete the survey and be in the running to win a free company ticket to UX Tuesday!
These are both a little experimental and I’m really interested to see how they go and what we can learn from them. Come check it out if you’re interested or please pass details on to anyone you know who might be interested. I’ll keep you posted re: progress.
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!)
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
UK, Out of London
Out of UK
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
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
Day rate: £75
Day rate: £550
(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?
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?
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
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:
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?
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?
Unsurprisingly, the bulk of the respondents report doing most of their work in London.
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)
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.
My name is Leisa Reichelt. I am the Head of User Research at the Government Digital Service in the Cabinet Office.
I lead a team of great researchers who work in agile, multidisciplinary digital teams to help continuously connect the people who design products with the people who will use them and support experimentation and ongoing learning in product design.
If you're interested in working with me or would like to talk more please email me