10 bits of advice for UK UX contractors

Why I wrote this.

It’s 2015 and, after a few years as a contractor I’ve given up on being paid well and being able to take a month off to return to a full time position. Why? Am I crazy? Well I was fed up with short term projects and never ever feeling quote part of a team. Plus I’m moving into more of a management role. There are pros and cons to contracting and for me it’s been a great experience and it’s time for a change.

To mark that change I thought I’d pass on some advice, some of which may be obvious but I thought I’d still share. These are things I realised as I gained experience that are more important than trying to be UX rockstar and producing the best possible user experience, regardless of the personal cost.

1. Be nice

No project or client is ever worth getting angry about or loosing sleep. I hold my hands up and admit there have been at least two projects in the past I needlessly got angry with those I was working with. There is no excuse for this ever. I realised the empathy skills I claimed to have should also be used with those I work with. Being nice just makes every project so much more fun. Keeping a sense of humour and perspective intact is also likely to lead to better results.

2. Be flexible

So a contractor arrives on a new project only to find out that the mobile phone service design project is now an Axure prototyping project for a customer service intranet. Or a UXer spends four months working on a detailed personalisation project only for it to be shelved. Or the client wants paper sketches before detailed wireframes or HTML mockups, which is not how the contractor prefers to work. We have our favourite ways of working. Given enough freedom we should be able to recommend those techniques, but in other cases we need to be pragmatic enough to understand adapt to the teams needs. There is no ‘one size fits all’ UX process.

3. Don’t take it personally

If someone doesn’t like what we’ve done then there is probably a good reason, even if that person is having trouble explaining why. Don’t take any criticism of any work you do as an a criticism of yourself. Even the best UXers will not hit the best solution first time around. Or second time around. The reason we work in teams is that different team members have different perspectives and we should listen to everyone.

So if someone has harsh criticism of our work it is our role to ask positive questions in order to uncover what the person is thinking, why they are thinking it and how we can deliver something that is closer to what they are thinking. Try their ideas, time allowing, and be prepared to let go of your own cherished ideas. Don’t let your ego insist your ideas are the best. Try to avoid pitting an opinion against an opinion. Defended opinions without rational and evidence can come across as just plain obstient.

4. Treat everything as a learning opportunity

This leads on from being nice and being flexible. Learn how each team you work with works best. If you’ve used Omnigraffle Mac for five years and you turn up and are asked to work on a PC using Visio then view it as a way to expand your skills. UX is such a broad discipline that there are a staggering amounts of different ways teams can work. There is no one right way and the more different ways you have available to you the easier future work will be. Remember that being open to the ideas of others does not mean you will come across as unable to make decisions and be trusted as the go to person for UX for a project.

5. Build up a tool box

As a UX contractor you should collect different techniques for doing UX. For example if you focus on prototypes then you should have the ability to do different types of prototypes for different audiences using different tools. If you are asked to facilitate a workshop it is useful to have a few standard ways of running a session that will work for different workshop aims. No two projects are the same so the more UX methods you have the better. Be aware of new trends but don’t feel that any new tool instantly makes old tools redundant.

6. Know if you’re the wrong person for a job

I used to be a ‘Unicorn’ when I first started out back in the 90s. I used to do everything on a project. This included scoping out a site, creating the HTML, coding up the back end scripting, producing the graphics and uploading the final site. If you’re a freelancer building sites for small companies it is still possible to be a Unicorn but for larger projects specialists are needed. Even within UX there are UXers who specialise on different kinds of projects.. Creating UX for an advertising company is not the same as creating it for a large ecommerce company and if all a person has done is worked on web sites then designing for TV will be out side of their specialism.

If someone asked me to create the pixel perfect comps for a large fashion site I would hold my hands up and say I wasn’t the right person, despite having a diploma in graphic design. I’m too focused on core UX to match what a visual design specialist can do. Same would be true if I was asked to create a microsites for a client. I would be the wrong person as I don’t enjoy promotional work and would always recommended landing destinations on an existing website over microsites. I’d leave it to a UXer who was happy to work in marketing.

Above all, if you’re going to do UX, understand what UX is. Don’t be a visual designer who claims to do UX but would never choose to do usability testing. Don’t be a front end developer who thinks that bootstrap is how you create the UX. Don’t be an interaction designer who approaches a large ecommerce site like they would a small promotional site.

If you think you are a ninja-rockstar-expert then there is a good chance you are suffering from the Dunning–Kruger effect. Inversely you could be much wiser than you know if you've been doing something for a while. The more you know, there more there appears to be known. This is normal. You are not an imposter.

7. Be honest

This starts with your portfolio and CV. If you produced something as part of a team, say so. If you are not strong at something then by all means say that is something you are looking to learn more about. It will make your strengths more real and means you are more likely to get the right jobs for you. Blagging UX is becoming much harder as there are more seasoned UXers out there.

Be honest with yourself about which things you are good at and which things you’d like to develope and the things you can’t really do. This will avoid being given tasks you won’t be able to deliver against and will lead to less friction. Often honesty will be rewarded by better support, more trust and people being more impressed when you deliver against something you are not that strong at.

Don’t confuse honesty with bluntness. There are some things no one wants or needs to hear. I know one UX contractor (not myself in this case) who told the client that their current solution was ‘shit’. Whilst he was not wrong in his blunt review of the solution, it was terrible from a UX point of view, he was wrong in the way he communicated this. Honesty is not an excuse to be negative but about pointing out better ways to do things. If something can be improved it’s okay to say so. It’s not okay to say how bad something is without having alternatives.

8. Have your own kit

This is the first of two practical bits of advice. Having a Mac laptop (or a PC if that is the way our clients work) with appropriate software, some dropbox space (client network security allowing), a memory stick (ditto), your own mouse and some headphones means that you can turn up and do your work. In many companies you may be given a machine but it is not uncommon for them to be missing software, or be very slow or simply not have arrived in time. Or there may simply be no desks so the next best option is a break out area desk. Kit also extends to your own notebook / sketching paper and pens. The bad state of a clients hardware and stationery should never stop you getting a job done. Projector adaptors are also useful.

A bonus tip - if your Macbook has a hard drive and is getting slow then consider swapping out the hard drive for a solid state drive and putting the hard drive where the CD rom is. The whole procedure costs a fraction of a new laptop and will keep your old faithful Macbook running for another couple of years.

9. Have your accounts under control

This may be an odd one to end on but is vital. The advice here applies mostly to UK contractors but the overall idea of having your financial act in gear is true for all contractors. If you don’t stay on top of it it will drive you crazy, cost you money and will take a lot of time to sort out. Money is one of the reasons we contract. This one is going to take some bullet points.

  • Pick between an umbrella company or a limited company. A simple rule of thumb is the longer you’re going to be contracting the more likely you should be using a limited company. If it's going to be six months a umbrella company is best. If it's two years go for a limited company. Don’t use an off shore scheme, unless you want to suddenly be faced by a large demand in the future.

The rest of these tips only really apply to a limited company.

  • Employ an accounting company. By this I mean don’t do it yourself and don’t employ a single accountant. What you are after is one of the many companies that charge a flat rate each month and has some kind of onine system or spreadsheet you fill in yourself. You do your invoicing and fill in all your expenses etc and they will tell you what is yours to take out of the company, how to do it and remind you when you need to do it. They’ll also do your end of year accounts. This will result in no nasty surprises.

  • Set up a business bank account. Don’t use your personal bank account for your business. Business banks tend to have bad interest and often have a charge associated but the separation is vital. It also makes the next point easier.

  • Know that the money in the company's bank account isn’t yours. Learn from your accounting company. Only pull out dividends and the salary that has been worked out and not before the money is available. Only when it reaches your bank account can you see any money yours. It is better to have too much money in your limited companies accounts than to have to repay money back to your company because you forgot about the VAT. Or corporation tax. Or PAYE. Or accountancy fees. Your company will earn far more than you ever will. If you want to know how much you personally earn you need to look at the dividends plus salary minus your personal tax. Knowing this figure will prevent you from over spending or taking time off when you can’t afford to.

  • Keep on top of your expenses. When you are working for your company then the things you buy should be paid for by the company. There are notable exceptions. If you’re commuting each day you can’t expense for lunch but you can expense travel to work. Don’t expense beers after work as entertaining but do add a bit on each month for doing your accounting work at home under ‘Use of home’. There are guidelines on all this at the HMRC site.

  • Sign up for flat rate VAT. Look this up as you get a percentage of your money back if you go flat rate. Items over £2000 (that’ll be a new laptop) you can claim VAT back on. It’s a no brainer for any UK contractor.

  • Don't let it build up. Get into the habit of filling in all the things you need to fill in. For example the system I used required me to balance my business bank accounts with my spreadsheet I was given. I came to treat it as a game I would do for about an hour once a week.

10. Make sure others can pick up where you left off

So you’ve finished your project on time and it’s time to backpack around Puru. Everyone is happy with the work and the developers are already several sprints in. You might have organised leaving drinks and there may be a card signed by the team. It’s a bittersweet time. They’ll let you know when the next project starts, which is nice.

But before you head for the Inca Trail keep in mind the contractor or internal UX folks who will be asked to make just a few more changes whilst you’re struggling with altitude sickness (Puru has some very high bits). Ensure all the files are well labeled, well organised and in formats people can access. Enclude source files where need be and ensure it’s in a logical place. Even better leave a brain dump - these are time capsules for past projects and pass on information that keeps your ideas alive.

Summary and a few bonus tips

Be nice, honest, flexible, prepared, knowledgeable and organised and this UX contracting lark will be easy. Oh and find five recruitment agencies that you like and get UX. Still use linkedin and twitter and if you have good contacts, mine them. Repeat and rolling contracts for a good company make things much much easier. Join a few groups and attend some local UX events.

UX will always exist in some form in the future, even if the name gets changed. Before we were UXers we were Information Architects or Interaction Designers. Who knows what the titles we use will be in the future. But as long as there are technologies to be tamed and frustrated users there will be a need for what we currently call user experience.

See Also: Previous UX Stew Posts