The freelance grass is always greener from the other side.
I have freelanced as a UX researcher alongside full-time jobs for almost my entire career, but I recently am coming out of a long stint where I was strictly a freelance UX research consultant. During this past year or so, freelancing was my only job, I had no other full-time gigs, besides a (very) part-time job as a UX Research instructor at Pratt.
I have had many people comment on freelancing as a UX researcher, and have had many people ask me, “should I do it?” I won’t lie, it sounds idyllic to most people, but before I answer that specific question, I want to delve deeper into my experience as a freelance user research consultant. Note, this is just my experience, so it very well will be different from other people’s experiences. It is best to ask a few different people in order to get a holistic view (heyo, user research on user research freelancing).
I’ll go backwards because I like ending on a positive note.
- This is (potentially) your only source of income. This is bolded, and number one, for a very good reason — it is very difficult to rely on income that is not guaranteed, at least not in the same way a salary from a full-time job steadily flows into your bank account. This part can be very scary, and can often make or break your career. I know people who do side jobs (dog walking, Uber driving, check out at a grocery store, bartender) to help finance their freelance, but keep in mind, this takes away from your freelance business
- Be very aware that you will no longer be given benefits (such things like health insurance). If you have a partner that can cover you, that is great. I did not, so I had to buy health insurance, which was extremely expensive compared to the health insurance you get through being a full-time employee. Keep this in mind as an added expense!
- Being a freelancer can be difficult for those who are introverted. I am an introverted person, which means it is difficult for me to constantly be networking and selling my brand. I wrote an article on networking as an introvert in order to help those similar to me. It is something you can improve at (I definitely have), but it can be very exhausting at times, especially when you just want to do work and get paid
- People may reach out to you, seemingly very excited for an upcoming project that (typically) has to start soon. You decide to take the project. You might turn down other opportunities because of said project. Suddenly, you are experiencing the work equivalent of getting ghosted. The original project is no longer happening and you are scrambling to control+Z (undo) all the projects you turned down for this one. This is an ongoing cycle
- Companies have a hard time distinguishing the difference between UX research and UX design, especially in the freelance world. You will often get pinged for projects that are very UX design heavy. Freelance user research is still a fairly new concept to companies, so it takes a lot of patience and education
- You have to learn how to market yourself as a service, essentially. This means coming up with a brand. I have a brand called “The Product Therapist” that I have been using (and working on) for many years. When I decided to pursue freelance as my career, I had to work a lot on establishing my brand — this was through Facebook, a website, twitter, Medium, network, etc. I had to prove that I was a valuable candidate for jobs, and could offer something revolutionary, something that people needed right that second
- As a freelancer, you are constantly on the look-out for work — whether that be for an immediate project, or something you can schedule into the future. Job websites and LinkedIn will become your two most frequently visited pages. You will troll the internet for work, especially work that is “contract-based” or freelance. It isn’t easy to find freelance work, in general, especially in user research, so you will always be searching and crossing your fingers that one of your connections has a connection to another connection with a project
- Not a lot of people understand how user researchers can freelance, and I don’t necessarily blame them. It makes more sense for engineers or designers to hop into a project, complete their work and then leave. User researchers should be an internal part of a team, as they need to deeply understand the product, users and team dynamics. You need to make sure you have questions to how you would effectively bring actionable user research insights to a team in such a short amount of time
- Although you don’t have a 9–5 job and office desk, you may also not have a weekend. Sometimes project timelines will get moved up and, suddenly, on a Friday morning, you get an email that a project deadline is now Monday. Since you weren’t there, it is hard to always keep track of changing deadlines or needs
- When you are primarily working from home, it can become quite isolating. As someone who is naturally introverted, there would be days where I wouldn’t speak to another human or go outside. Of course there are ways to combat this, I went to the gym, ran errands, walked my dog, but certain days, it would have been nice to be working in an office, with a team
- Setting your own schedule is really freeing (but you also have to set boundaries for yourself). I could, and honestly did, turn on the TV and watch a show for 30 minutes (or an hour) as a break. Or I went shopping and ran errands. I (used to) go to Trader Joe’s to get groceries at 10:30am. I could go to the gym during off-hours. My hours were my own, and I molded them around my priorities (which were, at times, not well thought-out). Freelancing is a very flexible job, and come sometimes work better than a full-time job, depending on your life circumstances
- A very cool part of freelancing is the ability to be on so many different projects, which can lend to a high variety of industries, products and team dynamics. It is really neat to see how differently people think about and want to implement user research. Seeing these differences is a really wonderful learning experiences — you build more diverse experiences in a shorter amount of time, which can give you more tools for your research toolkit or help you work through problems with different perspectives
- Working from home is wonderful. I can’t tell you how much I loved hanging out with my cats and my dog. I can take my dog out for a midday walk, after I make myself lunch, which gets me out of my home office and into the fresh air. I could also choose to pop into a cafe or library if I needed a change of pace. Also, having no commute was super cool — I could wake up and start my day without worrying about train delays, weather or traffic
- You can make a lot of money. You aren’t working for anyone, so the money goes straight to you, and you are able to charge a good amount, since you have to take into consideration the fact that you aren’t getting any of the securities you would from a full-time job. When I got my first freelance job, I timidly stated my hourly rate (you can do hourly or project rate), which felt way too much. If you are successful in managing projects and time, you can really rake in a lot of dough
Should you do it?
My boyfriend (a product manager), would be thrilled to hear me use his favorite product manager phrase, “it depends.”
Are you at the beginning of your UX Research career? I would highly recommend not going into freelance as a full-time job. Most companies who are looking for a freelance UX researcher want someone who has had a decent amount of experience, can lead projects and think about research strategy. A good way to get into freelance is to do some on the side during a full-time or part-time job. I would highly recommend you gain some experience before you jump into a freelance project.
Do you like structure? Unless you can create (and stick to) your own structure and have a sense of self-discipline, freelancing might not be the best idea for you. Oftentimes, you have to set your own schedule and it is 100% on you whether or not you get your work done on time. You will usually be working from home (many temptations reside there), and won’t be in constant communication with teams, so you really have to push yourself to stick to your work hours.
Where do you live? This can go both ways — there is often a lot of opportunities in bigger cities, but that also lends to a more expensive lifestyle. I freelanced when I was living in Brooklyn, New York. There were months where I was terrified I wouldn’t be able to pay rent. I was able to charge more, but it didn’t always mean I was constantly making enough. I remember when I had a vet emergency close to the holidays, the combination between the vet bill and how quiet it gets over the holidays was extremely stressful.
Have you worked in the field in a more structured environment and are looking to try something new? Maybe it is time! Freelance is a great way to get a plethora of varied experiences in a short amount of time, and it can be super fun!
So, how do you do it?
- Start by asking yourself why you want to go into freelance — is it because it seems easy or looks cool? Probably not the best reasons, as it looks more glamorous from the outside
- Look around at the “competition” out there — what are other freelancers saying or doing? How does this compare with what you want to do? I recommend doing a small SWOT analysis on what else is out there. It can give you an understanding of what you are getting into and what you need to convey
- Begin by branding your freelance service. This includes a number of things, such as a clear website that states your services, being active on social media (twitter is a big UX place), having case studies/portfolio pieces to showcase your skillsets and decide if you want to be an LLC (helps when working with bigger companies). I would recommend completing some brand exercises to help you define your brand. These can focus on tone, language, color schemes, logo, font, as well as things like vision, values, etc. It may seem “flooffy,” but this is important step in creating cohesive stories on your website. I used this guide (it was awesome).
- Generate a pitch for yourself. How would you pitch your services? What makes you special or valuable? What do you offer that people can’t do/find on their own? Have a small pitch ready in your mind for when you go out networking.
- Make sure your LinkedIn profile is super professional, up-to-date and includes important keywords (qualitative research, usability testing, etc). A controversial idea is to say you are available for projects in your title — some people say this is a bad look, since you seem “undesirable,” but it can also let recruiters know you are looking for work
- Create business cards! This is more fun 🙂 It is important to have them for networking!
- Set an hourly rate for your work. What should you charge on an hourly basis? It does depend on your skillset, where you live, general expenses, etc. I used this calculator, which is really robust, to help me determine my hourly rate. There are others out there, so it may be worth trying a few to see what the average is. Also, consider thinking about project rates. I switched over from hourly to project rates once I understood, in general, the number of hours certain tasks take me. I now prefer project rates, as it is more straightforward for clients and I don’t need to set a number of hours. Start with hourly until you have a good understanding of how long tasks take you and then go from there
- Network all the time. Every chance you have to go to a social event (in your industry, not cocktail hour), go and bring your business cards. I can’t begin to count the number of meetups I went to or the number of conferences I attended. This is the best way to meet people in your field who may want to hire you for a project. This also means you don’t only go to UX research meetups, but also product or tech ones, which may give you a wider range of people looking for help. Even though you are looking for work, make sure you approach people in a genuine way — they are not just there to get you a job, they are people too
Overall, before you dive into the world of freelancing, make sure you think about it from both sides: what will you gain and what will you be giving up? Carefully weigh the pros and cons, as there are pros and cons to both sides. Talk to all the people you can who have gone into freelancing, they don’t have to be in your particular field, but it helps. Also, make sure you think about anyone else in your life that may be affected by this decision (including pets!), as the instability can greatly impact others!
Either way, freelancing is definitely an experience I recommend people to have, when they are ready. You can always jump ship and go back to a full-time job (which I’m doing)! The only thing I urge you to do is really think about and consider all sides! Happy freelancing!