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What you need to know about being freelance


I’m a freelance UX consultant, which means I get brought in by companies on a project-basis. I love being my own boss and it would take something special to make me go back to being employed. I’ve been freelancing this way for just over a year now and it’s been a great learning experience, which has included discovering things that weren’t immediately obvious when I started. If you’re thinking of setting out on your own or even just working more remotely here’s what you should know.

It takes a while to work out what you offer

When you go freelance you need to define what service you’re going to provide for what clients. I knew I was going to be doing UX design but that’s still pretty vague. Did I really want to do UX design for kids magazine sites? Or financial systems? And perhaps more importantly could I? No, I wanted to choose clients that I had a good understanding of and could help.

What I could offer expertise in is ecommerce, more precisely online marketplaces, and even more precisely for growing startups. It’s something that has evolved and took a year of client work to realise exactly how to position myself after realising this was the common thread between the jobs I was taking on. Once I reached that realisation, this was how I began to position myself on my website. This doesn’t prevent me taking other clients that might be interesting but it does help qualify those potential clients that find me online.

For a great walkthrough on positioning yourself, I recommend The Positioning Manual, which nails why it’s so important.

Work out when you work best

What’s the magic routine for getting great work done? Get up at 5am and do everything before breakfast? Schedule your day in half hour chunks? I’m now firmly of the opinion there is no optimal routine. There’s only what works for you.

When I started freelancing I scheduled every task I had to do in my Google Calendar in an attempt to discipline myself into getting everything done. However I’d soon find one task would take longer than its allotted slot and then the schedule would fall apart. I also tried a 50/20/50 method but in both cases what I kept finding myself doing was messing around on email and small tasks in the morning before cracking on with the big design tasks of the day in the afternoon (after I’d built up guilt for not starting them earlier!). I was gravitating towards the 1:30 – 5:00pm slot being when I got my best work done. So rather than fight it, this is what I embraced.

Don’t obsess about reading up on successful people’s routines, just try out a few things and then follow what works for you. The only hard rules I would follow if you’re working from home: get up at a reasonable time, get dressed, and go for a walk at lunchtime.

Stay on top of your to do list

Something I’ve realised only recently is just how much juggling of my to do list I do. It’s not a fixed document that owns me, I own it and situations are changing all the time and it has to react. At least twice a day I’m re-prioritising what needs to be done in the next week but as long as I have everything on there and I’m steadily ticking things off then I know I’m making progress.

When a new bit of work comes requiring several new tasks to get done in the next day then I swap them in for something that’s less urgent. I try to follow a rule of having no more than two big tasks and six or seven small tasks per day. If something less urgent keeps getting bumped then it’s probably a sign that you don’t need to do it. Also keep each task manageable so it doesn’t seem intimidating—break up ‘do user testing’ into ‘write test script’, ‘set up test’, ‘analyse test 1’, ‘analyse test 2’ etc.

I’ve found that staying productive is about focussing on the right things not spending lots of time on tasks. Keep on top of this and you can work smarter not longer. I’ve used Wanderlist for years because it’s a simple tool and I live in the ‘Week’ view.

Don’t work by the hour

Just like productivity shouldn’t be measured by time spent on a task (this is a Victorian way of thinking that we still have embedded in us), you shouldn’t price your work that way either. Give your clients fixed prices for projects based on the value you bring to them. For instance, improving conversion rate on a sales page will bring more profits to a massive retailer than it will to a brand new company. It helps you and the client budget better too.

There’s a lot more about value-based pricing on Double Your Freelancing, which explores this area in depth.

Success with clients comes from working collaboratively

When you’re commissioned by a client are you the type of person who wants to disappear and not show them anything until you have something you’re 100% happy with? If so then you’re taking a massive gamble. If you want happy clients then you need to work collaboratively.

This means acting like a member of their team. Share everything you learn along the way through your research and take them with you in your design process. Let them help you by getting their input early not at the end when you might have to re-do everything. I can’t think of any major disagreements I’ve had taking this approach. This is worth an article of its own, which I’ll write up soon.

Invest in your tools

It’s worth putting a bit of money into getting the tools you need for your job. I started off without a decent chair or an extra monitor and kept finding myself lounging with a laptop on my sofa—and had the neck pain that came with it. Once I had got a better space to work at I was much more eager to work at my desk and an ergonomic chair which didn’t harm my posture. People can think of it as wasting money on fancy tools, but quite simply the nicer you make your working environment the more time you’ll want to spend there.

Business bank accounts can take ages

I recommend having a separate business bank account. It helps remind you that the money earned doesn’t belong to you until after expenses and taxes. However be warned that it took me about three months to get one. It’s a bit of an archaic process with a fee structure to match. Something I wasn’t aware of and certainly a user experience that could be improved.

Also there’s so many apps out there that make keeping track of expenses and invoices easy so there’s no excuse for not staying on top of this.

Diversify your work

Ultimately if you’re a one-person team then you are your own boss who is responsible for keeping things fresh. The great thing is, there are no rules for how you can earn money. Once you’re out of the world of working for one company, you can look at many different income streams. As well as UX projects for clients, I productise services, mentor individuals, teach workshops and courses, self-publish books etc. Don’t be afraid to do something you haven’t done before—if it doesn’t work out you can always drop it.

People see freelancing as risky but I think in many ways you’re safer: all your eggs aren’t in one basket. You may wonder what is acceptable to do as there’s no one giving you permission to do these things. However there are tons of blogs out there by interesting folk around the world who have made freelancing work in new ways. Just like investing in shares, diversification is a good idea.

Published on 31 May 2016

ux / freelance / worklife balance / productivity / time management / tools /

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