Four years ago, after receiving a UX design certification through a three-month course, I felt confident I could land an in-house job as a UX designer. But the company I worked for at the time, a large corporation with thousands of employees, was not making it easy to switch careers. In-house designers had their own office floor, and in order to get to that floor, I was facing a lot of red tape and spending more time in my current position, which was no longer interesting to me.
Additionally, I faced the age-old predicament when I went out for jobs at other companies: I had a certification, but how was I supposed to switch careers without practical experience in the field first? Sure, I had some class projects in my portfolio and could talk about UX endlessly, but that didn’t seem to be cutting it when I actually went out for open UX design positions.
So I quit my day job and started freelancing in UX design. Freelancing proved to be a more empowering way to continue doing what I enjoyed because I didn’t have to wait for a manager’s approval to do it. I’ve learned quite a bit about what it takes to be a freelance UX designer, and how it’s different from other freelance professions.
Here’s what it takes, what you’ll be up against, and how it’s different from working full-time at one company.
The Ins and Outs of UX Freelancing
Freelancers can usually tell you the specific reason they made this career choice. For me, freelancing was a way to get myself in the door without having to ask a company for permission.
Max Podraniuk chose UX freelancing as a way to keep up with the market’s demands. Podraniuk, a Ukraine-based UX design freelancer, left the field of graphic design after he saw what lower-cost designers were doing to the market rate for his services.
UX Design is much more human-centered and focused on the psychological aspects of a product’s effect on its users, he said. “The transition was stepping away from visual work, getting more in-depth with learning what the user wants, learning how to develop software for the user, and understanding behavioral patterns and decision-making principles.”
Freelancers often wear all the hats
UX designers, especially freelancers, must be comfortable and confident moving between UX disciplines. Depending on the company, in-house designers may be boxed into a single discipline.
On some projects, I’m a user researcher. Sometimes I’m a strategist and architect, and other times I focus on solely interface design and wireframing. On many projects, I do a little bit of everything, whether it be interviewing, analysis, testing, card sorting, wireframing, content strategy, and more.
Podraniuk adds business consulting to his UX design services as well – probably something that in-house designers don’t face often, but can add tremendous value if you work for your own clients.
Freelancers serve as management and worker bees
UX freelancers, especially if working solo, are often times responsible for the entire design of the project and its outcomes. During Podraniuk’s in-house experience, he had supervisors to speak up for him in meetings and senior colleagues to draw experience and knowledge from – and sometimes to pick up his messes. Freelancing doesn’t always afford the same options. Your decisions are likely to be executed very literally, and with less oversight. You’ll see the impact, good or bad, first hand.
Freelancers must be diligent about setting expectations
As a lone freelancer, not only will you be wearing many hats but clients may often mistake you for something else. I can’t count how many potential clients have asked me for graphic design, UI design, or development tasks, and are not fully aware of my capabilities as a UX designer. Because this is so common it’s the freelancer’s job to sell themselves and be explicitly clear about their services.
In addition to setting expectations for your skillset, freelancers often have to coach the client on what should or needs to be done differently from what they thought. Maybe the client hasn’t accounted for user research or come to you for a specific fix that is really a symptom of a larger UX problem.
UX freelancers often have to justify exercises that don’t immediately yield quick results or visual deliverables – exercises like card sorts, sitemaps, taxonomies, and more.
Podraniuk said reselling a client is something he does often. It helps him go after jobs that at first may not appear to be a good fit.
I find myself doing this quite often as well. For example, I’ve done architecture exercises like sitemaps and content audits for clients who were originally only interested in wireframes or creating user journeys for clients who originally just wanted a website redesign – and I received positive feedback. Why? Because I noticed that they needed to change how they thought about the entire product and their users completely. As a UX design freelancer, noticing that and acting on it is my job.
If freelancing is calling your name, here are some helpful tips to get you started:
- Getting new business often means networking in person. Find events to attend that could have potential customers to start understanding potential client’s needs and how your services could help. Meetup.com, local co-working spaces, or your local chamber of commerce are three good places to start. Don’t forget business cards.
- Choose how you will charge clients. There are different ways to charge for projects. Some projects might be hourly, and for others, you might prefer to charge one flat fee. The online freelancing platform CloudPeeps provides advice on charging for projects.
- Have a contract in hand and ready to send, detailing the entire project, for your new client. There are many great resources for managing contracts and administrative duties that can help automate some processes. And if you think you might need the advice of a lawyer or help of an accountant, it helps to already have some contacts in hand before the fact.
Is freelancing for you?
In short, freelancing in UX design offers many benefits that in-house positions cannot, but it’s up to you to decide if it’s the right path for your career. These benefits include making your own schedule, choosing the projects you enjoy working on, and, in most cases, increasing your pay rate per project.
Podraniuk enjoys being able to run errands during the day and work when he feels the most productive, as well as being able to say “no” to low paid jobs or uninteresting projects. “Freelancing, for me, is like heaven,” he said.
What validates my choice to go freelance, other than knowing I’m happy at work? Well, the company I quit four years ago now calls me every other month to fill their open UX positions.