freelancing can be a tough, competitive field. That’s why we asked successful UX to tell us how they manage clients, market their UX skills, and stay sane while doing it

So you’re thinking about making the leap to freelance UX. You’ve already got a couple of potential clients lined up, your UX portfolio is pixel-perfect and your home office is looking oh-so-cosy. You’re feeling great, right! Right?? Ummm…

Going freelance in any industry can be nerve-wracking. Freelance UX is no different — finding work, managing clients, staying relevant, marketing yourself, finding a UX community… These can all turn into insurmountable challenges at four in the morning when you’re staring at the ceiling and freaking out.

Luckily, you’re not the first user experience designer to take the plunge and go freelance. Practising freelance UX can be a fulfilling way to grow as a professional and turn passion projects into profit, if you do it right.

That’s why Justinmind spoke to five successful freelance UXers to find out how the solve their most pressing freelance challenges. Follow their hard-won and you’ll be on the way to freelance .

The experts:

  • Sebastian Mitchell, Freelance UX/UI designer
  • Matt Isherwood, UX Consultant & Writer
  • Jamie Archer, Freelance UX Designer
  • Nick Babich — Editor of & Software Developer
  • Ivan Leal, Narrative UX Manager at BBVA

Sebastian Mitchell, Freelance UXer

What do you have to do to make it as a freelancer in UX?

To make it as a freelance UI/UX designer, all it takes is clients (and obviously some design ability). To start you don’t even need a UX portfolio, just focus on making contacts and getting projects. My first project I had a super basic behance portfolio with 2 outdated projects on it.

People underestimate the business side of freelancing — you really have to think of revenue, cash flow, marketing, and sales, and put effort into these activities. You need to be very persistent.

I’d also strongly recommend having savings to give you a runway. Before I quit my job, I saved A LOT. The general advice is 3 months of runway, but I think it’s better to have 12+ months of savings, even 24 if you can manage it.

You can also try to learn some of the skills needed for freelancing in your current job (marketing, budget management, sales). I was able to practice these skills in my previous job so I felt much more confident when I struck out on my own.

Lastly I would recommend trying to build your client list before you go freelance full-time. I actually didn’t do this — I quit my job without building up a list of clients, since I got very lucky with landing my first client (I got a project with minimal effort and thought it would be easy after that). Getting some clients before you make the transition will make it smoother and less intimidating.

What’s the best way to market yourself as a freelance UXer?

I’ve found my best clients (highest paying, nicest to work with) are usually referrals by friends. A friend of mine who is a very successful freelance digital marketer always gives the advice that you need to tell everyone you know what you do so that you maximise your chances of being referred a project — I completely agree.

Apart from that. there’s simply putting in the time to search and apply for freelance gigs on all the job boards. This is a bit of a grind and you need to be consistent, but the goal is to slowly build a client base that can then offer you recurring projects and referrals. Once you get to this stage you need to be systematic about getting referrals — ask each happy client if they know 3 people who would benefit from your design services and to introduce you to them.

You generally need to put in a lot of work upfront to have the flexibility you want later on (you’re building a business, after all).

There are other ways of course — one of the best would be creating a really stunning side project that gets a lot of attention. I haven’t had any side project ideas that really drive me for years now though so I haven’t taken this path.

“You need to be systematic about getting referrals — ask each happy client if they know 3 people who would benefit from your design services and to introduce you to them.”

Tips for dealing with difficult clients?

I haven’t had many difficult clients, mostly because I pre-screen potential clients before committing. You get a feeling for who is going to be difficult by the way they interact with you, their communication style. Do they respond promptly and clearly to emails? Do their requirements shift or grow each time you hear from them? Can they articulate what they want and why? Do they have budget? Do they haggle on price details or are they happy to pay what you request? All of these factors play into a feeling I get of a client. If it feels like they’ll be trouble, I politely decline.

On the subject of declining projects, my favourite way to do this is to say something like “I’d love to help you, but that particular skill/project isn’t my area of specialty, so I’m probably not the best person for the job”. This gives the other person the impression that you’re honest and thinking of the best outcome for them, rather than declining because something about the project doesn’t bode well.

I also avoid clients from certain countries due to my previous experience with their working styles.

Regarding payments, I always ask for a 50% deposit. With late payments, I’m polite in my emails but get progressively firmer. Putting “URGENT — “ in email subject lines regarding late payments makes them more likely to be read.

If the client asks for a design revision that’s out of scope just say “that sounds , that will add an extra 5 hours to the total, if that’s ok I’l go ahead”.

Find out more about Sebastian on his website.

Matt Isherwood, UX consultant and writer

What do you have to do to make it as a freelancer in UX?

I believe to ‘make it’ you need to be consistently leaving clients happier than before they found you. This means taking them on a journey and showing them how your work improves on what they had before.

To do this you need to get good at conducting and explaining your research, such as the results of analysing any data or user tests. Teach them what the problems were and how your solutions improve things. This helps people understand your rationale and let them feel educated as a result of working with you.

In my experience if you can do the above you should find your solutions being accepted and they’ll recommend you to other clients. If this keeps happening and you’ve got a steady supply of work coming in then I’d say you’ve made it.

“To ‘make it’ you need to be consistently leaving clients happier than before they found you.”

What’s the best way to market yourself as a freelance UXer?

The best way that has worked for me is to write regularly. Pick a specialism (in my case ecommerce) and write articles on that, which you host on your site. Inspiration for articles often comes from challenges faced in work I’ve done with clients. Share what you learn.

Once you build up a body of work people who want to solve similar problems will start to find you via Google searches. Most won’t want to hire someone, but some will. Also building up content on a subject area is a great way to be seen as an expert in that space and marks you out against other more ‘generic’ designers.

Tips for dealing with difficult clients?

In my experience, the vast majority of clients aren’t ‘difficult’ and most problems stem from problems in communication, or a lack of communication. It’s important to be very clear what you’re going to do for them up front so they understand what they are getting for their money.

My other big recommendation is to share your work early and often. Bring them along for the journey through your process and treat them as collaborators in the project. Their expertise can help you and issues can be spotted earlier and dealt with, rather than left until its a big thing to rework.

Finally, once you’ve been freelancing for a few years you should get a sense of the clients and projects that will help you do your best work. Don’t be afraid to say no to the others, if you’ve learned through experience that you won’t align with them.

Find out more about Matt on his website

Jamie Archer, Freelance UX Designer

What do you have to do to make it as a freelancer in UX?

I think making it as a freelancer in any industry, but especially the creative industry, requires you understand what you are selling more than anything else. With design jobs (or any ‘creative’ job) half of your time can be spent explaining what value you add.

In UX this is made worse by the fact that many people either don’t know or understand what UX is, or they confuse UX with UI or visual design, which of course it can encompass… but it’s also so much more.

I’ve basically started telling people what I do is like product design and business analysis — I look at a service or product that someone uses and try to improve it or create a new product or a new way of using an existing product. This requires me to understand business, psychology, interaction, design and also have a some technical understanding of what’s possible. For me ‘products’ tends to be digital rather than physical, but the user experience can be present in both realms.

Being able to explain what you do quickly without having people glaze over is a key aspect of being able to sell your services. If you specialise in only one or two areas of UX then this becomes a lot easier.

Some key tips:

  • Lots of patience and a belief in your abilities.
  • Under-promise over-deliver
  • Don’t say yes to everything
  • Specialize in at least one thing — be known for that
  • Get some experience and impress a few well connected clients
  • Never stop learning
  • Find other people who have skills you don’t and team up

What’s the best way to market yourself as a freelance UXer?

Going back to my last point, I would say specialisation in a few key areas and being a generalist in others allows you to focus your marketing. So I prefer to work on corporate information systems, intranets and web platforms, and my list of recent work reflects this.

I’ve never been a big fan of portfolio sites or Dribbble, but for online UX designers with good UI or visual design skills it’s very useful. Instead I prefer to send people a small PDF with some selected case studies of my work relevant to the project I’m pitching for explaining:

What the problem was -> UX skills required or methods used -> How using those methods we arrived at a solution

three platforms for getting independent work would be LinkedIn Recruiters, an optimised website or portfolio platform site, and freelancing sites like Upwork.

One of the most useful marketing books I read for people who work in a service job like my own is Badass Your Brand by Pia Silva. It was recommended to me by another freelancer and I’m still trying to implement all the valuable advice in this book. I prepare light UX reports for small fixed fee as a starter service in the hope that people will then go on to hire me to implement recommendations, do user testing, run content architecture workshops etc.

Though I don’t attend ‘networking’ events, I’m always passively networking. One of my current clients was someone whom I met at a funeral of all places! Everywhere you go there is always an opportunity to solve someone’s UX problem.

If you’re just starting out you need to build a portfolio of clients who know and trust you. Sometimes the easiest way to become a freelancer is to get a job! I ran a small business with a friend doing small web projects, e-commerce and brand microsites when I started. We were frequently out of our depth but the projects were always different and it pushed us to really learn new things and understand our clients need.

If you want to freelance for agencies, as opposed to working directly for a client, then working as an employee in an agency is definitely the best way to start. I started with the title Project Manager and my boss, to his credit and my eternal gratitude, recognised that I prefered the creative side to managing clients and got me funding to train in UX while also getting experience on the job.

I always try and remember George Monbiot’s career advice remembering who you are and what you’re goal is — working in large companies can make you lose site of that. Stay because you want to learn something, don’t stay because you think you should.

Another tips is to be where the action is. I spent six months in Crete but I had no Greek clients because the Greek online market is tiny and its requires local knowledge, so my clients were in Australia or the UK. I networked by joining a Javascript programming Meetup in Heraklion I had some prospective interviews but ultimately nothing came of it. Because I have a reputation and a small base of clients I was able to support myself but if you’re going to be a full time ‘digital nomad’ be aware you have to work harder to win clients from the major digital centres like London, Berlin, San Francisco etc.

There are so many things that make you a good freelancer but some people forget this when they work for themselves:

  • Love what you do and show that passion in your work
  • Don’t work all hours — you need to think of your time as a the most valuable resource because you never get it back. So don’t be your own worst boss.

If you don’t love what you do or you don’t have a great work-life balance you should probably start thinking about doing something else. When I got to that point I cycled from London to Singapore to get some perspective and start this craziness all over again 😉

Find out more about Jamie on his website

Nick Babich, Editor of UX Planet & Software Developer

Learn to present your work in the best way possible. People who hire you need to know whether you’re capable of doing work or not. Even before a telephone call or online chat, clients will review your portfolio. That’s why freelancers should put a lot of effort into creating the best possible portfolio.

Be a good negotiator. When you work with clients directly, you act both like a UX designer and UX manager. It means that don’t need to simply complete all tasks on time, you also need to persuade clients that your solution is good enough to be implemented. Thus, you need to improve your soft skills continually.

Plan each project. It might be tempting to work on multiple projects simultaneously. But it’s better to resist this temptation. You can’t deliver the same level of quality when you work on a lot of projects at the same time.

Find out more about Nick on his website

Ivan Leal, UX Designer & Narrative UX Manager at BBVA Bank

There’s no formula to be a success in this industry — or any industry — but I’ve followed a few of my own “rules” that have helped me develop professionally. Here are a few:

  • Give it your all: Whether your budget is big or small, put all your energy and love into each job. Not just because of your professional ethics but because someone is paying you and trusts you. For every person with a project and a need — in this case, your client — there’s nothing like seeing someone as motivated as yourself. This is the best recommendation letter.
  • Take care of every proposal as if it were the only one: A good project begins with a good proposal. It’s worth the time and effort to create it properly. After all, it’s a reflection of your potential involvement and the client will see that your interest in their need is sincere. You want your client to say: “Wow, this person really knows how to solve my problem” when they read your proposal.
  • Don’t be afraid to say “No”: No one likes to hear “no” as a response and, in general, we’re not used to saying it either, for fear of confrontation or losing out on certain work. Express your opinion with grace and manners. Be firm. If your clients knows you’re not going to tell them what they want to hear but what is in their best interest then you’ll earn respect and confidence.
  • Move, a lot: Work doesn’t appear out of thin air. The best way for opportunities to arise is to meet people and get to know them. That means they’ll know who to call when the moment arrives. Go to events, give talks, write articles about UX…
  • Be humble: One thing is true — if your client could do your job they wouldn’t pay you to do it. But you’re not indispensable nor are you the only professional available. Between an awesome UX designer who’s arrogant and an awesome UX designer who’s got the right attitude, which would you choose?

Follow Ivan on Medium for more UX wisdom

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