Do You Want to Be a UXR Consultant?

Moderated by Danielle Cooley
Hosted by the UX Researchers’ Guild
View the full video presentation here.

The decision to become a UXR Consultant can be a difficult one to make. Beyond just making the decision, if you choose to leap, when is the best time to do so? Should you start with consulting on a part-time basis or jump right into full-time? You will also need to look at establishing and building your business and brand, determining which clients and projects to pursue, pricing, and more!

As a 15-year veteran UXR Consultant, Danielle Cooley brought a wealth of knowledge and experience to this discussion. Though not an easy decision, leaving the corporate world to become an independent consultant can bring great rewards.

Finding Your Why

In his book, “Know Your Why: Finding and Fulfilling Your Calling in Life,” author Ken Costa emphasizes the need to understand one’s sense of purpose or direction. Without knowing why you want to be an independent consultant, it’s easy to burn out and get frustrated. You may find yourself doing great work and making great recommendations, only to see them end up in a metaphorical drawer, unimplemented. This can leave you wondering why you should even bother. Knowing your personal why will help you find the right projects and keep you motivated to see your efforts and dreams to completion.

Identifying Where You Are and What You Bring to the Table

Once you understand your motivation, it’s important to determine where you are on your path to being an independent UXR Consultant and what characteristics you currently have to help you on your journey. Consider what traits you have that are conducive to success as an independent consultant. A UX researcher does not have to have all these skills, nor is this a comprehensive list. But it is a helpful set of characteristics to think about. 

* I am comfortable taking risks to achieve my goals. As an independent consultant, you will be placed in situations you may not have experienced before. Being able to take those steps into the unknown comes with the territory.

* I am a good communicator and networker. Learning how to negotiate and communicate goes a long way. People will learn to trust you and what you say you will do.

* I can sell my services confidently. While selling is not something that UX researchers tend to do very often, it is a critical skill for entrepreneurship.

* I have experienced UXR work in a variety of different organizational environments. This background may or may not be necessary depending on how you target your practice, but as Danielle shared, “It has been helpful to me to have worked in large enterprises, scrappy startups, consulting agencies, and digital marketing agencies. So, if you’ve always worked in enterprise UX research and your clients will be in enterprise UX research, that’s great. But having that variety gives you a few more opportunities.”

* I have built up a strong network of UX professionals (or am committed to using every opportunity to do so going forward). Danielle shared the importance of this skill because most of her work comes from individuals she has previously worked with – something that’s true for many other independent UXR consultants she collaborates with.

* I’m comfortable working extra hours at times to keep up with multiple projects and nonbillable activities. Your schedule is something you can control to a certain extent but beware: it can get out of hand pretty quickly.

* I have the discipline to create a financial safety net for times when I do not have enough billable work. It is the nature of this work: feast or famine. Danielle said that in 2022, she made about 70% of her annual income in November and December. While unusual in some ways, it shows you can’t assume that because there is money in your bank account today, it will be there in two months. You have to be okay with the lulls that will come in this business and be able to save for them.

* I know the buck stops with me, and I can handle setbacks emotionally. You have to take responsibility for your work and work through challenges that may come. It feels personal when something falls through, even though you know it’s not. But it can be tough.

Once you have identified what characteristics you already have,  you will be better prepared to address other pressing questions of the business. For a more in-depth look into these skills, check out “The UX Careers Handbook” by Cory Lebson.

Should I Charge an Hourly or Fixed Fee as a UXR Consultant?

No matter where you are on your path, the first question that generally arises is how to price your services.

One way to bill is to charge an hourly rate. To estimate your hourly salary or consulting rate, it is approximately what your annual salary should be* divided by a thousand. Why 1,000 when you work 2,000 hours annually in a corporate job? As a consultant, not only will you have hundreds of unbillable hours for which you need to be compensated, but you will also have a higher tax burden. For easy math, if your desired annual salary is $100,000 a year, divide that by 1,000 and your hourly rate is about $100 an hour. 

* Are you underpaid now? If so, be sure to account for that when determining your rate. Your contribution is valuable. Make sure you’re paid what you’re worth.

The alternative to billing an hourly rate is to have fixed-fee, project-based billing. In this scenario, you would offer your services,  A, B, and C  for $X,000. Even though this is a fixed rate, your hourly rate is still something to consider. You will need to estimate how long the project will take, but it is ultimately based on the value to the customer. 

When you as a consultant give stakeholders research-informed recommendations for what they need to change in their interface or how they need to move forward with their strategic planning, consider the following questions: What is that worth to them? What are they going to gain in revenue or efficiency? What costs will be cut in terms of returned product or expensive call center volume? 

If the value to the company is less than what your hourly rate would be to do that project, you don’t want to take it on. If your fixed fee is about your hourly rate, then you can start looking at other factors. And if that value is higher, then that value is higher and that’s okay. 

It’s important to not underestimate your contribution. Your work has value. Danielle has worked for the second largest healthcare system in the United States, and if they can increase their patient load by one-quarter of 1%, that’s worth millions of dollars. If she were to charge only $2,000 because it only took her 15-20 hours to complete, she is not being fair to herself. Her work is worth much more.

This graph from the UXR Guild offers some guidelines for what you ought to charge based on your title and work experience. This and other resources can be found at

Pay rates vary based on the experience required, type of research, length of engagement, and the budget of the client. We cannot guarantee what rate you may be offered for a specific job, but these are representative pay ranges:

Title Experience Rate range ($/hour):
Mid-level Researcher 3-5 years $80.00 to $110.00
Senor-level Researcher 5-10 years $110.00 to $140.00
Lead Researcher 7-12 years $120.00 to $150.00
Principal Researcher 8-15+ years $130.00 to $160.00
Manager or Director 10-20+ years $140.00 to $200.00+

What Does an Independent Consultant Do?

As Danielle’s friend Brian O’Neill shared with her, “If you want to do UX research all day, do not become an independent consultant.” There is so much more you will need to do. Simply put, “Be ready to be the chief everything officer.” The reality is that your duties will more than likely include, but not be limited to, the following roles:

  • Salesperson
  • Accountant
  • Marketer
  • Chief Strategist
  • Contracts lawyer
  • HR Specialist
  • Operations Officer
  • Office Manager
  • IT Support

All this is in addition to doing the research work, managing recruitment, identifying the best software tools for the job, and delivering reports and test plans. 

Finding Your Niche in UX Research

The next thing to consider when diving into being an independent consultant is what kind of work you are going to do in your consulting practice. Another one of Danielle’s friends, Jim Barnthouse, shared this important maxim: “The riches are in the niches.” Identifying a niche will help you target your marketing and your messaging, whether in industry, health care, finance, or a sub-niche of one of these. 

While this may be true in theory, the practice can be rather intimidating. What would you do if someone were to ask you to do something else? You may still be able to do it. Niches may have different practices, but your familiarity with the process could be applied to other businesses. 

Possible niches could include:

  • Industries (automotive, FinTech, healthcare, medical devices)
  • Company size (startups, small, mid-sized, large, enterprise)
  • Product categories (mobile, enterprise, B2B, B2C)
  • Product types (Intranets, social media apps, Sharepoint)
  • UXR stages (early discovery through alpha, beta, and release)
  • UXR methods (journey mapping, field research, usability testing

If you don’t want to niche but still want to narrow your work, you can certainly find clients. For example, you could market yourself as a thought leader and find a variety of work. But be aware that if you are designing (or marketing) for everyone, you are, in essence, designing (and marketing) for no one. While you may feel uncomfortable identifying a niche as a UX researcher, specializing will generally be better for most consultants. 

When to Transition to UXR Consulting

While many characteristics listed above are factors to know when to make the transition, the most important one is having a financial safety net. Just because you leave your employment and take the leap, does not mean the money will start flowing right away.

Your consulting practice is business to business: a business is hiring you to do the work, and that takes time. You and the product owner or VP must be in complete agreement on the terms, scope, and timeline. Beyond this is the legal aspect of being hired to work for a company, with procurement taking months to get everything signed off and done, and before any revenue starts flowing in.

The ideal scenario would be to have a client lined up before you jump. In any case, you will want to start building up that safety net as soon as you can.

Owning your own business does offer a measure of flexibility of working whenever you want. But what that flexibility will look like for you will depend on other obligations you may have, such as family.

Technology Needed to Be a UXR Consultant

Another question that arises frequently is what technology or digital tools an independent consultant needs to get started. Besides the obvious need for a computer, Danielle strongly suggests getting a web domain and an associated email address. A domain costs about $20 and a linked Gmail will run about $6 a month.

Beyond these basics, you will also want to consider the following:

  • Some sort of presentation, spreadsheet, or documentation tool. If you’re not ready to invest in Office, a less expensive option is Google Workspace.
  • A cloud-based storage or collaboration system. Google Drive is included in a Google Workspace account.
  • A meeting tool. Zoom accounts are available for free but come with limitations. Google Meet can help you accomplish the same objectives.
  • An accounting tool. Wave is free. Also, FreshBooks and QuickBooks are some other options. 

Another aspect of the business to look at is specialized tools. But do you need tools specific to the UX industry and work? “Not necessarily,” says Danielle. UserTesting is expensive to purchase as an independent consultant, since it is targeted to the enterprise, and a license can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Danielle offered that she only uses UserTesting if her client has a license already. Optimal Workshop is a less expensive option at about $2,500 a year. Yet even with this, Danielle will do a monthly subscription for however long the project is going to last and then cancel it, making sure she accounts for that amount in the project proposal. The same with Loop 11.

If you plan on developing prototypes for testing, Figma is not the only option out there. Danielle has used PowerPoint, Mural, or Miro, to accomplish these same tasks for a whole lot less. 

While many of these tools are helpful, you don’t have to have a ton of capital to invest in starting your practice. It is possible to start on the side and build towards full-time consultant work as long as your current employment contract is amenable to that. 

How to Find Clients as a UXR Consultant

There are many different methods to find clients as an independent consultant Danielle has had the most success with word of mouth or referrals, either from past clients or co-workers. But what do you do if you are just beginning your practice and have yet to build up a large network?

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Hone your internet search skills. Know how algorithms work and what you can do to get more noticed online.
  • Look into opportunities to speak at conferences. This can be an especially effective way to get yourself noticed, especially if the conference is local. Even if it is the smallest attended session during that block, it is a way to make connections. The people who hear you may not need your services at the time, but they will remember you when that need comes in the future.
  • LinkedIn is another resource. Posting about your skillset and availability can draw attention to what you have to offer. You can also use the site to demonstrate your thought leadership by posting frequently to expand your reach.

All of these have mixed levels of success depending on what you’ve decided to specialize in, what is easiest for you to do, and what you’re most likely to do. It’s like exercise; the best exercise is the one you will do. The best course of action to find clients is the one you can and will do consistently.

Is There a Difference Between Consulting and Freelancing?

While some people use the terms “independent consultant” and “freelancer” interchangeably, Danielle Cooley begs to differ. She intentionally does not use the term “freelancer” because of the connotation that can suggest it’s a side gig. But when you think about yourself as an independent consultant and small business owner who runs a consulting practice or consulting firm, this changes your mindset about who you are and what you do. 

Another word Danielle avoids using is contractor. She describes the difference this way: contractors are extra hands; consultants are extra brains. A contractor will often have a full-time 40-hour-week contract for X number of months or indefinitely. A contractor is hired to do specific research or build wireframes or take existing wireframes and add a layer of visual design using a specific style guide or design system. Whereas a consultant is hired with this directive: “Here’s the problem we’re trying to solve. How do you think we should approach it?” In this scenario, a company is buying a consultant’s expertise instead of (or in addition to) a developed skill. 

Differences Between Independent Consulting and In-house Consulting Services

As an independent consultant, you have experience or education in other fields that make you more valuable. Danielle has an Engineering degree, and her Human Factors degree is from a business school which gives her a deeper understanding of these three areas. In contrast, some consultants without similar experience will propose great UX but are not technically skilled to implement it, move the business forward enough, or support the business goals.

In addition, this is one place where niching can help you stand out. You may feel that your automotive experience is only valuable in that industry. But many skills carry over to, say, a financial services company where you can take what worked in this other context and with a new perspective, apply it in this new environment.

Independent consultants have every bit of value as those large companies or competitors that offer research services.

“I decided to start being an independent consultant after I got laid off from a consulting company,” shared Danielle. “My first prospective client told me they were considering hiring my former employer. I explained that if they had done so three weeks earlier, they would have gotten me and paid twice as much for the same work because of the overhead. They chose to hire me as an independent consultant. I did great work for them and they hired me again later.”

Should I Hire a Lawyer as a UXR Consultant?

Do you need to hire a lawyer, or can you rely on online templates found for legal documents such as contractual agreements and mutual NDAs?  

While Danielle is not a lawyer nor professes to offer legal advice, she suggests that those online templates are a good place to begin if you’re just getting started. But, she added, be sure and read them with a critical eye. You can also ask other consultants if they would be willing to share the subcontractor agreement they use. If you are subcontracted to a company, they also likely had their legal team look over the agreement they want you to sign.  

At a minimum, any contract should have a timeline, acceptance criteria, and payment terms. But if there’s a question or points of concern, you want to include those in the contract. Don’t leave anything open to interpretation if you can. Be as clear as possible. 

So, the short answer is no, you don’t need a lawyer. Just be aware of the risks you may encounter. (And yes, if you can afford one, you should get one.)

Best Lead Generating Activities

There are myriad activities to generate UX leads. But here are three that have worked well for Danielle and her colleagues:

  • LinkedIn: Cory Lebson uses LinkedIn with much success. He will post his availability in the coming months and has had a great response. He enjoys doing in-person testing, so if he has a gap, he might offer to waive his travel expenses, for example. This works very well for him and expands his network.
  • SEO: Carol Barnum of UX Firm uses search engine optimization. By working with an SEO specialist, she keeps herself in the rankings where she wants to be. She pays a monthly retainer to do so, but it has paid off for her.
  • Word of mouth and past employees: This has been Danielle’s greatest lead-generating activity. The success of this will depend on where your niche and target audience are, and your unique skillset. If you don’t have an expansive network of UX professionals, then word of mouth will not get you as far as if you did have that deeper network. If you are still working toward building out your UX sphere, this can be a good strategy until that network expands.
  • Presenting at conferences: If you have chosen a narrow specialty, look into local conferences for that niche and see if you can present or exhibit there. While the ROI on exhibiting isn’t great, presenting might be hugely successful. The folks who write the checks may not be there, but when a need arises for a consultant, those who attended your session will remember you and tell their boss. 

How do you choose the best lead-generating activity for you? Find the tool that suits you the best and be open to other activities. Some may require greater courage, but don’t forget others have been where you are now. You will find success as you continue to persevere.

. . .

Danielle Cooley has been the owner of DGCooley & Co., a bespoke independent UX research and strategy consulting practice since 2009. Her past work has included Hyundai, Graco, Pfizer, Sargento Foods, and Mayo Clinic. She has a BE in Biomedical and Electrical Engineering from Vanderbilt University and an MS in Human Factors in Information Design from Bentley University.

Group Pages

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Do You Want to Be a UXR Consultant?

Research Rumble
Session 1 – Research Democratization
Session 2 – Are Personas an Effective Tool?
Session 3 – How Important are Quant Skills to UX Research?
Session 4 – AI in UX Research
Session 5 – ​Do UX Researchers Need In-depth Domain Knowledge?

How to Freelance
Are You Ready to Freelance?
Do You Need a Freelance Plan?
How Do You Find Freelance Clients?
Which Business Entity is Best for Freelancers?
How to Manage a Freelance Business
How to Start and Manage Your Freelance Business
What is a Freelance UXR/UX Strategist?
Can Your Employer Stop You From Freelancing?

Leveling Up with UX Strategy
Session 1 – What is UX Strategy?
Session 2 – UX Strategy for Researchers
Session 3 – Working with Your UX Champions

Quantitative UX Research Methods
Session 1 – When to Use Which Quantitative Methods
Session 2 – How to Use Statistical Tests in UX Research
Session 3 – Using Advanced Statistics in UX Research

Transitioning to Freelance UX Research
Session 1 – Transitioning to Freelance

Farewell Academia; Hello UXr
Session 1 – How to Create a UXr Portfolio
Session 2 – Creating UX Research Plans, Moderation Guides, and Screeners
Session 3 – Recruiting and Fielding UX Research Study Participants
Session 4 – Creating UX Analysis Guides and Portfolios
Session 5 – Portfolio Case Studies and LinkedIn Profiles, and Partnering with Recruiters
Session 6 – Framing Impact in UXr Portfolios and Resumes

UX Research in the Automotive Industry