Are You Ready to Be an Independent UX Consultant?

By Cory Lebson

Published: January 27, 2014

“A decision that many UX professionals must make is whether it makes more sense to work in house, focusing on the needs of one company, or to work across multiple companies as a consultant.”

For most of my career as a UX consultant, I have worked full time on some company’s payroll. A number of years back, one very large consulting organization hired me for a 6-month, full-time gig, working on site for a client. When, at the appointed time, the project concluded successfully, the consulting firm didn’t immediately have any other UX work for which I was suited. No problem. They were large, had deep pockets, and were optimistic. They told me they were putting me on the bench. What did that mean? It meant that I’d continue to be employed, but there was really nothing that needed doing. “Relax,” they said, “and stay nearby in case we need you on short notice.” So I went home and did just that. I went to the beach for a few days with the family and caught up on household chores.

At the time, this made me feel safe. Here was a company that cared about their consultants enough to pay me to do absolutely nothing when they couldn’t find any project to put me on. But now, when I look back on that time, I see things a little differently. Yes, they were certainly worthy of respect for keeping me on the payroll even when I was on the bench, but knowing what I know now about billing rates for companies like that, I figure that their profit from my working for them for six months was greater than my pay for one year. Certainly, my being on the bench for a month or so wasn’t all that big a deal for them financially.

A decision that many UX professionals must make is whether it makes more sense to work in house, focusing on the needs of one company, or to work across multiple companies as a consultant. But consulting itself involves yet another important decision: Should you continue to work as an employee of another company at an agency or go out on your own and hang up your own shingle as an independent consultant?

Let’s break this question down a bit: What are the pros and cons of working for someone else versus working for yourself?

Working for Someone Else

“When a project ends, there’s the possibility that your company will keep you on the payroll, benching you for a bit while they look for more work for you, or they may try to find you some temporary work to do internally.”

First, let’s look at the pros and cons of working for a consulting firm.

ProsPros:

  • stability—You get a regular paycheck each pay period.
  • safety—When a project ends, there’s the possibility that your company will keep you on the payroll, benching you for a bit while they look for more work for you, or they may try to find you some temporary work to do internally.
  • benefits—You have easy access to various insurance benefits and other perks.
  • colleagues—You most likely have peers at your company with whom you interact regularly and over the long term, not just during one project.
  • office space—You likely work at an office where there’s a space to call your own.
  • no sales—They probably won’t require you to sell your own services.
  • no negotiating—Someone negotiates for you, discussing contract terms and rates. You can just show up and start doing the work!

Cons Cons:

  • less money—You might get a good salary, but they hired you to make money for the business.
  • predetermined benefits—While getting benefits is easy, they’re often standardized for all employees rather than specific to your individual needs.
  • limited flexibility—You get a set number of days off, must follow certain parameters when taking days off, and may be required to work during specific hours of the day.
  • required commute—Perhaps you have the flexibility to work at home when you want to, but maybe not.
  • limited control—You have a boss, and you may not have much control over what projects you get assigned to.

Working for Yourself

“You are your own boss. You can try to win projects that you will enjoy and also have the option to turn down any projects that don’t interest you.”

So, what are the pros and cons of working for yourself? We could simply invert the lists I’ve just outlined!

ProsPros:

  • money—The profit is yours—all yours.
  • benefits—You have more flexibility in choosing what benefits you want. In some ways, this is the ultimate in cafeteria plans.
  • flexibility—You can set your own hours, as long as you can make them work within your clients’ needs.
  • commute—Your home office is usually your home—although it doesn’t have to be. There are often co-working spaces available, offering you some co-workers and forcing you to get dressed up, or at least dressed, to go to work. And you can choose a co-working space at a location close to home.
  • control—You are your own boss. You can try to win projects that you will enjoy and also have the option to turn down any projects that don’t interest you.
  • satisfaction—Achieving success in your own business can be emotionally rewarding.

Cons Cons:

  • lack of stability—Your workload may ebb and flow over time, meaning your income won’t be regular.
  • no safety net—You have to create your own safety net, disciplining yourself to save up enough of your profits during busy times, so you’ll still be able to pay your bills when work slows.
  • obtain your own benefits—While it’s easier to get individual insurance than in the past—particularly health insurance—you still need to do the legwork to find your own coverage. And benefits are expensive.
  • less water-cooler talk—You might have colleagues on a project, but not necessarily over the long term and not as often.
  • no office space—You need to carve out a dedicated space for work at home or find a co-working space in a convenient location.
  • sales—If you don’t constantly sell your services, you might not always be working.
  • negotiating—You’re responsible for all discussions about your rate, your hours, and your deliverables.

Do You Have What It Takes?

“I have observed two important things that lead to success in independent UX consulting: a willingness to take risks and a willingness to sell.”

Some independent UX consultants are not successful, while others are wildly successful. I have observed two important things that lead to success in independent UX consulting: a willingness to take risks and a willingness to sell.

  • What kind of risks are you taking? You risk not having work or not having enough work. You risk underselling your services and earning less money than you should or overbidding and losing a project.  You have nobody at your company to back you up if things go wrong with a client. You need to be willing to take those risks, learn from your mistakes, and always keep moving forward. 
  • What does it mean to sell? There is always going to be some aspect of bidding. You might respond directly to a request for proposal (RFP). A company might ask you to be part of a team that responds to an RFP, and you’ll need to contribute your part of the proposal and do some negotiating with the company that is leading the proposal. But selling doesn’t just mean being reactive; you need to be proactive as well. You’ve got to get yourself out there—beyond just doing your work—and market yourself.

UX Experience and Expertise

“An important thing that you’ll need to assess before you make the jump to independent consulting is whether you’re an expert in some particular area of user experience.”

An important thing that you’ll need to assess before you make the jump to independent consulting is whether you’re an expert in some particular area of user experience. This does not mean you must have absolutely comprehensive knowledge of that area—that’s hard to prove anyway. Rather, have you done a variety of work and can you describe it to potential clients in a way that lets you justifiably argue that you have expert-level skills in one or more areas? I personally declare my expertise to be in UX research, evaluation, UX training, and UX strategy, and I have enough projects under my belt to back up those claims.

You can certainly earn this expertise by working in house to meet one company’s UX needs, but it is often better to have worked for various companies at different points in your career. Better yet, if you’ve recently been employed as a consultant with a consulting firm, the leap to independent consulting is not so great.

Experience with the Lingo

“The greater the variety of the situations in which you’ve worked before making the jump to independent consulting, the better you’ll be able to sell your services to whomever inquires about them….”

Sometimes, it’s the little things that make a difference in how you come across to potential client. One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that different companies and industries use different vocabularies in conversations about user experience. I’ve seen some cases where the lingo tends to be more techie, while in other cases, it has its basis in marketing terminology. What kind of language you should use also depends on who you’re working with. For me, as a UX researcher, I sometimes work with developers or designers or project managers or stakeholders with other backgrounds—and sometimes with all of them at once. The greater the variety of the situations in which you’ve worked before making the jump to independent consulting, the better you’ll be able to sell your services to whomever inquires about them, and the more you’ll come across as knowledgeable.

Rev Your Engine

“You need to start revving your engine long before you reach that break-away point. In fact, the truth is that you should be revving your engine all the time anyway.”

So, you’ve now weighed the pros and cons of being an independent consultant, and you feel that you have the necessary experience. You may be ready. But becoming an independent consultant doesn’t usually mean that you just wake up one day and declare: “I’m tired of my old job. I quit. Now, I just need to find some freelance work to take on.” At least that would not be the recommended approach.  Rather, you need to start revving your engine long before you reach that break-away point. In fact, the truth is that you should be revving your engine all the time anyway.

At some point, though, if you decide to take the route of a freelance UX consultant, it will be time to break away. In my own case, I was working full time at a company, but had decided that enough was enough. I was ready. The only problem was that I had no work, so I put out some feelers. Within about six weeks, I found a project that matched my skill set, was nearly a full-time gig, and would last for about three months. That was just long enough to enable me to cement my new identity as an independent consultant, but still allow me a little time to start searching for other work. By the time my first project ended, I had found another nearly full-time gig that lasted for a long time. As time progressed, my hours on that contract gradually diminished, and I replaced that single project with a number of smaller projects.

How will you know when you’ve reached your break-away point? Most importantly, you should feel ready—or at least nearly ready. Here are some questions that you may want to ask yourself:

  • Do you have a project that will let you break away?
  • Is that break-away project going to let you spend some time on business development, so you can lock in your next project?
  • If you don’t immediately find another project after your first one, can you manage financially? Emotionally?

Jump!

Now, you’ve considered the pros and cons of consulting. You’ve looked inward. You’re ready. And you jump! User experience is an ever-growing field with lots of job possibilities. If things don’t work out as you’ve planned, you can always go back to working on staff for a company. But with a little success, you might find that your career has become more exciting as a consultant. Good luck!

6 Comments

This is a really interesting article—one I read with a certain amount of nostalgia as I effectively became freelance 7 years ago.

However, you haven’t mentioned my specific scenario, which, in the UK at least, is very popular: contracting.

I have my own Ltd. company, which I own, and I contract for 3, 6, or sometimes 12 months to an agency who supplies me to large firms to work on one or more projects as a Senior UX Consultant. I bill a healthy £450 every day, and I work every day of the week. I also take on the occasional freelance project, say 100-hour jobs, but the meat of my business comes from contracts.

It’s a perfect half-way house between the options you gave. I’m my own boss, I can be flexible, I handle my own taxes and benefits—therefore, pay less and have benefits to suit.

:)

Great article and very relevant to the design scene in my area (Pittsburgh, PA), where contract gigs are plenty, but full-time opportunities are few and mostly junior level.

One question I have: What about the cost of office supplies? Printers? Whiteboards? Computers? I’m just at the point of considering taking on some contract opportunities, as a slow transition away from full-time security. I see a significant cost in my near future in building up a home office environment from scratch. Any advice?

It is really interesting to read this story. As a researcher at a university, I also experienced several independent UX projects matching my skills, but I am not ready to be an independent UX consultant. I am willing to take risks and sell myself based on my professional training and background, but in most cases, I can’t get enough projects to offer financial security. That’s the point, especially in China.

I really enjoyed reading this! I’m wondering though, have you ever got to do your job from afar? Remotely? If so, i would love to hear about the process!

Thanks

Great article and advice.

Not only do you respond to RFPs, but you also need to know how to do detailed low-level project planning. Often you manage other people, and there’s a range of hourly or fixed-bid prices people are willing to pay.

I know some freelancers here in the US who charge $60.00 per hour and some $250.00 per hour.

Many companies are looking to leverage specific niche experience, and if you don’t have it—say B2B direct sales or gamification or have an app in the app store—they don’t want to work with you.

Don’t get discouraged by short-sighted people. There’s a good fit out there. You might just need to travel a bit.

And for the record, Nir, I’ve worked with companies in Australia, Israel, India, and some European countries, as well as all over the USA, exclusively by phone. It can be done.

Something that had an impact for me is professional development. As a contractor, you can decide to go to conferences—although you do have to pay—which gives you flexibility. However, what you miss out on is daily experience working with other people with the same skill set as you who you can learn from. Often the client may not know much about your area of expertise—that is why they are hiring you. So, if you don’t already know it, you don’t learn it. Training courses are all very well, but it’s not the same as working with people who have different skills and experience—and it’s the loss of the team environment that had the biggest impact for me.

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