So you want to be a UX freelancer?

People sometimes ask me for advice about getting into User Experience freelancing. Is it enjoyable? Is it worth it? Is it good money? The fact is, the answer to all these things entirely depends on you and the way you choose to run your business. Let me explain…

Are you experienced?

To be a UX practitioner as an employee, you only need to be good at UX. To do it as a freelancer, you need more skills. Most importantly, you also need to be able to cope with difficult business situations without panicking. What do you do when a client tries to get you do work you don’t agree with? How do you deal with a late payer? How do you explain to the boss of your client that they’re wrong?

Mike Monteiro’s book Design is a Job is a nice litmus test. If you read it and lots of the points are obvious to you then it’s a good sign.

Know why you want to go freelance

Everyone has different motivations and it’s important that you understand what you want out of it so you make the right decisions. For example, when I went freelance we’d just had our second baby, which meant I had my whole family dependent on my income. I kept telling myself that money was my main motivation, so when I was offered a long term contracting role at an investment bank, I jumped at the chance.

It turned out to be the most hostile environment I’ve ever worked in, and I quit within a few days. As a counterpoint, one of my current clients is a small charity fundraising startup. They’re awesome and I couldn’t be happier working with them.

My point here is that if you’re clear and honest with yourself about your motivations, you will make good decisions and end up happier. Write a rule-book for yourself about the types of work you do and don’t want to do, then stick to it.

How broad is your skill-set?

If you’re very specialised – say you only do qualitative user research or you only make front end prototypes, then you’re closing doors for yourself as a UX freelancer. I see research and design as the yin and yang of UX – you really need a balance of both types of skill. The broader your skill-set, the wider you can cast your net for work and the longer your contracts are likely to be. Being a niche specialist certainly does help you stand out from the crowd, but it’s really useful to be able to turn your hand to anything when necessary.

If you’re working as an employee now and considering going freelance, I’d advise you to volunteer to work on projects that are outside of your comfort zone. Focus on your weaknesses because once you go solo, you’ll have nobody to support you.

Knowing what kind of income you need

Before you start, you need to have an idea of what your income goal is. If you look on any UX recruiter’s website, you’ll see that UX freelancers tend to earn between £400-500 a day in London. Don’t make the mistake of multiplying it by the number of working days in a year – you won’t be wearing a top hat and monocle just yet. You’re better off starting by thinking of your current income and working out how many days a year you’d need to freelance to hit that. Speak to an accountant, as you may find you’ll pay less tax as a freelancer than as an employee (this is the usually case in the UK if you start a limited company).

Your income as a freelancer is primarily defined by your utilisation rate (number of days worked in a period / number of working days in that period). In some agencies I’ve worked, it’s been normal for some billed staff to have utilisation as low as 50%. This isn’t really a problem since agencies tend to charge at least double a freelancer’s rate, and when staff are “on the bench” (between projects) they can turn their hand to other areas of the business like proposal writing, pitching, event organising, blogging, helping out on other projects, etc. Agencies are set up to accommodate bench time, and being on the bench is a pleasant experience.

When you’re freelancing, the situation is a stark contrast. 50% utilisation can be very stressful. Your cash-flow becomes an obsession. When I worked agency-side I used to write a lot of proposals and do a lot of free pre-sales consultancy. I know a few freelancers who have carried on doing this after making the break to freelance. Beware of this mistake. You’ve no longer got the cushion of an agency’s day rate to behave like this. Sales work is vital for you, but you need to recognise the difference between sales and free consultancy or spec work.

Preparing before you made the break

I was an academic researcher for many years at the beginning of my career, so I’ve always been into knowledge sharing – writing articles, public speaking, and so on. This has helped with my visibility, but it’s easy to over-estimate the value. A few hit articles on Hacker News don’t translate into clients queuing up. One article I wrote last year on Dark Patterns got 50,000 uniques overnight. Not one genuine sales enquiry occurred as a result. It’s worthwhile doing all that stuff, but it doesn’t solve your sales problem for you.

What helped me more was my work history – not in terms of my résumé but the personal relationships it gave me. When I started out I made a list of all the client names I’d worked for in the last 10 years. It wasn’t actually that long – about 50 individuals. Then I started thinking about all the other people I’ve crossed paths with during that work. All the project stakeholders, and all the junior and mid weight people on the teams. The nice thing about time passing is that people spread out into other organisations and your peers take on senior roles. If you made an effort to build a positive relationship with them, they’re much more likely to hire you.

My fundamental point is that you shouldn’t always chase after the people who are currently holding the purse strings. This may sound obvious but it’s important to maintain relationships with the people you like from your prior clients’ organisations and make sure you meet up with them socially every month or so. One honest friendship is worth a hundred sales meetings.

Know where your new business will come from

If you haven’t got a pipeline of work coming in from direct clients, then you’ll probably end up using a recruitment agency. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but recruiters have their downsides. Firstly, they’re pocketing about 20% of the day rate they’re charging the client, which would otherwise be going to you. Secondly, they have a habit of bending the truth to you about the project and to the client about your skills. The most common horror story about recruiters is that you get mis-sold a project. That wonderful blue-sky vision project turns out to be a wireframe production line role.

If you go to a recruiter and they line you up with a design agency, you now have 2 layers of middlemen sitting in between you and the client. Most London UX agencies charge their clients around £1000 a day. The client sees you as a very expensive resource and if they’re nervous, they’re going to quibble over every hour you bill. This means it can be quite high pressure and stressful in comparison to working for the very same client in a direct relationship.

All that said, there are lots of good reasons to freelance in design agencies. The agency might have an awesome team you get on with, skills and methods that you want to acquire or great projects that you want to be involved with.

To sum up – going freelance is not an easy decision to make. I hope at least now I’ve given you a few things to think about while you’re making up your mind.