Playing UX Matchmaker

Pairing UX designers with potential clients is a situation wrought with strife, but it doesn't have to be. In this article, Andrew asks how we can better sell ourselves as UX designers.

Creative designer-type seeks smart, open-minded entreprenuer. Must possess a respectable budget, a reasonable capacity to trust in the judgement of others, and also be willing to commit to a long-term relationship after one week of ‘discovery’—erm, dating. Serious offers only.


Ahh, love. It appears in such varied forms, does it not? Although it’s unlikely that anyone scanning the local wanted ads would come across such a curious article, it does make you wonder… what comprises the “ideal” UX client? And because it’s such a difficult question to answer, I’d like to take a moment to ponder it further.

Is your ideal client:

  • A small, mom-and-pop shop, a promising dot-com startup, or a corporate behemoth? Why?
  • Do they have a design culture that’s ill-defined or one that’s well-defined? Would you rather work under a creative director? Again, why?
  • Finally, do you enjoy the idea of working for a company that takes risks? or, perhaps you’d like to work with one that’s a bit more calculated in its approach? Once again, why? why? why?

While we’re at it, too, it’s probably a good idea to consider these questions in reverse. That is, what determines the “perfect” UX designer for a would-be UX client? Being practitioners ourselves, it’s easier to create a more-or-less comprehensive checklist of the “do yas” or “don’tchas” surrounding UX design.

For those looking to hire a UX designers:

  • Does it matter if the designer in question is a “no-name” designer, an up-and-coming designer, or a UX Unicorn? Why?
  • Do they need to possess a strong visual aesthetic or style?
  • Should this designer strictly lead by example, learn as she goes, or do both?
  • Can the designer you seek draw straight lines (read: wireframe)? Is it okay if she can’t?
  • Finally, do you prefer a designer who goes with their gut or one that methodically tests their designs?

Because a designer’s clientele represents their work just as much as designer’s work represents her clientele, neither side should rush into things. Beginning any design engagement by establishing long-term, tactical goals as well as strategic ground rules helps both designer and client alike manage their partner’s expectations and weather (what often appears to be) a most uncertain storm.

UX portfolio: hot or not?

And yet we commonly sell ourselves short in this regard. In a day and age where window shopping for designers is literally a mouse click away, we often cut to the chase and show a little skin: hiding behind the veil of the “digital portfolio.” My question is: why?

Well, to begin with, the model is clearly consistent with client expectation. Most people don’t know what UX design is, after all – they mistake it for graphic design or visual design – and giving people pretty pictures of pretty websites makes the complicated practice of UX design at least look simple. Isn’t that what we’re all about, anyway? Simplicity?

There is one catch, however; one that becomes all too clear when you take the time to consider all of various the questions one might ask before engaging in a design relationship. Portfolio sites alone don’t exhibit how a designer thinks. This is big problem for UX designers because what we do design depends largely upon how we think.

Given enough time, anyone can push pixels, sketch interactions, or generate a decent site map – all of which might comprise the contemporary user experience designer’s toolkit. People that do these things in a vacuum are known as wireframe monkeys. The true talent comes from design thinking (if you’ll pardon the catch phrase): managing the pixels thusly pushed, the wireframes thusly sketched. Sharing not only what you do but how and why you did it that way differentiates you and engages the right would-be clients.

Both Whitney Hess and Jeffrey Zeldman agree: telling the world how/why you did something is infinitely more important than just showing them what you did. Their weapon of choice for espousing these thoughts is, not surprisingly, their own publications. So the lesson to all designers is this: when it comes to design, sharing your thoughts and/or opinions on design is not only a considerable alternative but a preferred one.

Perceived Complexity from Dan Ritz on Vimeo.

UX Designer Dan Ritzenthaler’s portfolio site, wurkit.com, contains a large collection of videos that don’t just highlight projects. Instead, they convey Dan’s pragmatic approach.

Pop the question(s)

Almost weekly, I’ll receive an email from a up-and-coming user experience designer who simply wants to get better at their craft by working with “more established” clientele. To them, I would advise: ask and you shall receive. Put your name and your thoughts online. It’s the only way you’ll convince potential clients that you are, in fact, their design soul mate.

If the questions that I presented at the beginning of this article weren’t enough to get the ball rolling, here are a number of tips for UX Designers looking for better clientele as well as clientele looking for better UX designers.

For UX Designers

  • Open a dialogue. If you’re truly in the business of designing for people, you have to talk to those people – this goes for both users and stakeholders. Without their insights, without knowing what they need, you can’t properly do your job.

  • Don’t have an image-heavy portfolio. It’s tough, if not impossible, to take a screenshot of an experience. Unless you’re keen on showing off your illustration skills, skip the bulky images and save that space for explanations of how you work and how you think differently.
  • Explain what you don’t do, and why. If a project sounds like it’s probably outside of your range of expertise or experience, simply say no. Turning down work might seem difficult, but will be better for you, the client, and the users in the long run.

For those interested in hiring

  • Know what you’re looking for. Far too often, those looking to hire a user experience designer don’t understand what the job title actually entails. They either sell designers short or look to them as a godsend. Neither view is healthy. My suggestion is to find a UX Design publication and get up to speed on who it is you’re after.

  • Know who you’re hiring, not just what you’re hiring them for. Pay attention to the way the designer/firm you’re looking at approaches problems. You’re not looking for someone to simply crank out a redesign, are you?

  • Conduct a portfolio review. Determining whether or not a user experience designer can successfully design isn’t a matter of simply looking at a series of screenshots of past work. Dig in to their portfolios. Examine the approaches they’ve used during projects. Note difficulties and the ways in which they were overcome.

In summary, we as UX designers have an image problem. That of course is no secret. But the time in which portfolio sites alone won or lost jobs is over, especially when it comes to the work of prudent user-centered designers. Playing the role of UX matchmaker is difficult to do, but if, as an industry, we’re willing to ask the difficult questions of our clients – indeed, our business partners – up front, we’re much more like to have a happy, promising future together.

I’d like to thank Andy Budd, Peter Merholtz, and Carl Smith for contributing their thoughts to the research I did for this article

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About the Author

Andrew Maier

Andrew is a lifelong student of the design community, who co-founded the design publication UX Booth in 2008 to share his journey. He currently serves as its Editor-in-Chief. When he's not heading user-centered design initiatives for clients, Andrew dabbles in civic design. He lives in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood.

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2 Comments

  • India Reply

    I could’t agree more. Portfolio’s filled with picture really don’t do UX designers justice. They add to the confusion of what a UX designer is and does. Case studies based portfolios are a better approach because they allows UX designers to describe the thought process behind the design. Case studies shows clients that there is more to UX design the pretty pictures.

  • Dan Ritz Reply

    Those videos have more of an impact on getting more work than my portfolio.

    So much so, that for the longest time I didn’t even have a portfolio. I finally added one to get other designers to stop asking me why I don’t have one. :)

    Ultimately, I think the goal is getting people to understand that you know what you’re doing and are worth whatever you are charging. Pictures show skills for visual design, but are not very effective for demonstrating user experience design skills. There’s just too much room for assumptions.

    Great article!

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