How Do You Transition to Freelance UX Research?

Moderated by Susan Shaw, UXr Guild Board of Directors
This is an abridgment; view the full video presentation here.
Session 1 – October 3, 2022

Susan Shaw designed this session to talk about freelance strategies and challenges for those who are interested in doing freelance UX research or are just beginning to do so. The discussion centered around four main questions:

  • Is freelancing right for you?
  • What experience do you need to start freelancing?
  • How hard is freelancing?
  • Is freelancing worth it?

Is Freelancing Right For You?

It’s difficult to know if something is right for you if you’ve never tried it. How then can you discover if freelancing is a viable career option? Other questions might arise as you consider this avenue.

Where do I begin?
How does freelancing work?

Before jumping into the deep end of the freelancing pool, perhaps it’s best to focus on gaining experience and creating a network within UX research. Then, when an opportunity comes, whether by choice or necessity, you will be ready.

One participant, who had worked for years in a corporate setting, shared how his journey into freelancing came about because of a need to care for an aging parent. He shared that this leap of necessity hasn’t resulted in steady paychecks, but it has allowed him to focus on his priorities. And, he added, “I haven’t starved.” He enjoys being his own boss, and not having to deal with the bureaucracy that so often accompanies working for an employer. His decades of experience before this move gave him the confidence to turn to freelance when the need arose.

When working for a company, if you work hard to accomplish the goals of each research project, people will remember you as someone more concerned about the project than your career or politics. Then when the need for a freelancer comes about, your name will be at the top of their list.

Connect with everyone you can – whether in groups on LinkedIn, or groups such as the UX Researchers’ Guild or at virtual or in-person events or conferences. Those connections are crucial to building your network, as well as your confidence as you consider the move to freelancing.

What Experience Do You Need To Start Freelancing?

This is the time to take an honest and unapologetic look at what you have to bring to the freelancing UX table. While it might make sense to have the same skill set that you are hoping to be hired for, your life experiences, in a variety of environments, just might be the key.

One participant shared that she had been a bartender and couldn’t see how that job could be beneficial when looking toward UX research. But looked at through a different lens, this work gave her excellent listening skills that encouraged people to open up to her—this ability to create environments where people feel comfortable and at ease is huge. As a UX researcher, having people share their needs and concerns is half the battle.

Another previous job experience that can be a huge asset as a researcher is being a teacher. In this profession, it is essential to know the abilities of all students in a class, and how to put them together in teams to learn from each other. Sounds a lot like a UX researcher! Just because you are now working with adults rather than children or youth, doesn’t mean that the same principles don’t apply. A business community, an office, or a department is not that different from a classroom.

When you include any previous work experience on a resume, bid, or quote, emphasize the communication, organization, and personal skills you acquired and how these can easily translate into a better understanding of a client’s goals and objectives. You really do have more experience than you think.

How Hard is Freelancing?

The first thing that often comes to mind is job security. You know what your income is when you work for an employer. But sometimes you need flexibility. Getting into freelancing allows you that flexibility. The decision to freelance may hinge on what you value more: the security of a regular paycheck or flexibility in your work. Making the move to freelancing allows that flexibility. You need to do what is best for you in your situation. That’s where the work/life balance comes in.

Another thing that can be difficult is the idea of having to sell oneself to find clients. This may be the time to create and frequently update your portfolio and then keep your eyes open for potential possibilities.

An example was shared of a man who was working for a company as the only researcher. He thought the grass was greener on the other side, and jumped to another client, only to discover that it wasn’t as good as he thought it would be. That’s when he was contacted by his initial employer who asked him if he would be interested in freelancing for them. The answer was obvious. He didn’t have to market himself – the opportunity just came to him. He had done very good work for his first employer and when he left, they wanted him back. He cut down his work week, had more time with his family, and increased his income. The key was being so valuable to his past employer that they wanted him back.

Making the shift to freelancing doesn’t always have the same fairy tale ending. But then again, you never know until you give it a try.

Is Freelancing Worth It?

This final question is closely tied to the previous one. If you give up the security of full-time employment for the flexibility of freelancing, is it worth it? This is a particular question that has a different answer for each person. It all depends on your priorities, and what you are willing to do to pursue them. How important are the following:

  • Being your own boss
  • Being able to work where and when you want to
  • The ability to work with a variety of clients and projects
  • Avoiding much of the office politics and bureaucracy associated with an employer
  • Working with clients you enjoy, and on projects you love
  • Having greater control of your life and your schedule

If these aspects of freelancing have a stronger appeal to you than the uncertainty of letting go of a full-time job with an employer, then freelancing just might be the right path for you. And if you don’t feel quite ready now, take time to assess your current situation and how you can better position yourself for future opportunities. You have nothing to lose in being prepared, and who knows? There might be a whole new career waiting for you.

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