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5 Reasons Freelance UX Projects Fail

Jenny Reeves
By Jenny Reeves on 4th April, 2016 Updated on 1st February, 2017

The ever-so-popular saying, “Fail faster” should always be followed by “… and always learn from each misstep.”

If you adopt this mentality, you’ll discover that failure is an incredible opportunity to learn something about yourself—both as a UX professional and as a persevering entrepreneur.

If you’re a freelance UX consultant, that sense of perspective becomes even more important. Painting a clear picture of each consulting gig is the groundwork for correctly positioning yourself to bring the most business value to a project. Failing to do so can lead to projects that go horribly wrong.

If you’ve been hired as a UX consultant, chances are that at least one of these scenarios must be true:

  • The client has a smaller budget, smaller scope, or a limited amount of time to devote to this particular project—otherwise they would have hired a pricier digital agency.
  • The client has a digital team in place and just needs a boost or a fresh perspective on the UX front—hence, they hired a single individual.

Once we learn to swallow our pride and look at the situation objectively, we open the door to some incredible, invaluable lessons for next time. Here are the top 5 reasons freelance UX projects fail (along with preventative tactics).

Reason 1: You are not aware of the true need of the client.

At the beginning of each project, ask yourself: What’s the situation?

The answer is never just “The client needs a new UX design;” it’s something bigger. Think, what does the business need? A partner? A fresh perspective? A quick turnaround? A bold reinvention?

Understanding the strategy behind a business’s UX initiative reveals a lot of information that can help you deliver what the client truly desires.

To avoid this UX freelance fail:

Ask the client to describe the strategic reasoning behind this UX initiative—and ask upfront. Inquire about previous UX experiences the client has had, especially anything negative. Do this at the very beginning of the engagement, because that’s when executive-level stakeholders are present (they sometimes drop off when the project gets underway or don’t attend subsequent meetings).

Reason 2: You view yourself as a “freelancer” and may have a skewed perception of what that really means.

Yes, you are a freelancer, an outsider joining an established team on the client side, but this doesn’t mean you’re doomed to be isolated and excluded from the team. Go out of your way to integrate yourself into the team as much as you can, which means concentrating on visibility, collaboration, and facilitation

To avoid this UX freelance fail:

1. Maintain visibility. Be there in person, especially at the beginning of the project; the client’s team needs to be familiar with you and put a face to your name.

2. Collaborate in real time. If in-person meetings aren’t a possibility, there are plenty of other options. Use the phone (remember those?), online chat, or virtual meetings. Block off enough time to discuss the project in detail and get to know the client’s team. You can also invest in collaborative platforms like Mural.ly (whiteboarding/sketching) and UXPin (wireframing/prototyping) to facilitate remote sessions.

3. Facilitate communication. Use project management tools such as Basecamp, Asana, or Trello to keep the discussion going at all times and encourage openness, transparency and visibility.

Reason 3: Communication is everything.

Managing client expectations and scope is a big part of what freelance UX designers do, even when the client has their own project manager or product manager. There is much crossover between your role and theirs.

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Photo credit: Chris Thelwell

Grasping and leading the scope of work from a UX perspective can result in a lean approach that gives the client more bang for their buck, and who doesn’t like that?

To avoid this UX freelance fail:

1. Set expectations: Communicate about everything, even if it seems obvious; do whatever you can to avoid misunderstandings. Explain things like the difference between wireframes and mockups, or between site maps and use case maps. You are the UX expert – everyone else might not be.

2. Make informed recommendations: You are the subject matter expert on UX, so act like one! Don’t rely on a project manager to craft your emails; take initiative and communicate your opinions openly (and respectfully) to the client.

3. Give a backstage pass: Give the client a glimpse into the thinking behind the designs. If you’re a UXPin user, share your project folder with the client from the start and upload relevant documents (product requirements, user research, etc) each step of the way. This way, you show how ideas evolve over time. Whatever design platform you use, invite clients to a “home base” where they can see the complete context for each design or document.

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Reason 4: You are more into the craft than the strategy.

Sorry— it’s true. I love sleek wireframes and personas, don’t get me wrong, but documentation for the sake of documentation is the enemy of every UX process.

Deliverables should help drive decisions, not just document them.

One size does not fit all in today’s complicated digital landscape where development, design, strategy, social platforms, marketing, and psychology intertwine. Each of those is a unique process, and not keeping that in mind may result in lots of pretty visuals with no actual use.

When to use personas? When to use user flows? When to use wireframes vs. prototypes? How complex of a prototype do you really need to build?

To avoid this UX freelance fail:

Determine early on which UX deliverables are appropriate for the project and communicate your determination to the stakeholders. Explain how each piece of documentation serves a specific purpose and supports an efficient UX process.

Be specific. For example, you might say:

“In stage 1 we will create detailed use case maps. The maps will focus on specific workflows within the application. There may be up to 15 separate maps. In stage 2 we will create a handful of wireframes. Once the general direction is agreed upon, we will proceed with lo-fi prototypes. Rather than creating wireframes for each use case, as that would be time consuming and not as collaborative, you will be able to interact with an actual prototype to gather your feedback.”

Reason 5: You don’t want to be uncomfortable.

Being out of your comfort zone can play a big role in how you bring true value to freelance UX projects.

If you are simply interested in staying safe and doing something you’ve done before, you might lose an opportunity to innovate (and become known as an innovator). Clients tend to value innovation more highly than the technical skills you demonstrate throughout the process.

To avoid this UX freelance fail:

1. Try something new, on every project.

Even if it is a small thing – such as a new approach to empathy mapping, or a different tool for creating wireframes, you will force yourself to see things from a different angle and perhaps discover a better way to accomplish a common task.

Or maybe you’ll simply learn that the old way is still better.

Doing small things differently gives you the peace of mind that expectations will be met but you’ll still learn something in the process.

2. If you want to go bigger – innovate.

The opposite of staying comfortable is often innovation.

But how do you innovate when a client is expecting certain deliverables? Innovation comes in many useful forms beyond “blue sky thinking”:

  • During your project kickoff, you might add a 20-minute assumptions unpacking exercise at the end to create a baseline of knowledge that you can test against.
  • Instead of only interfacing with the direct client team (e.g. product manager, marketer, etc.), you can suggest they introduce you to their customer support team. Review incoming tickets and listen in on calls to reveal any patterns in usability issues.

Whatever your angle on innovation might be – explain how the tactics will improve the bottom line. If your client feels particularly risk-averse, focus your more unconventional tactics on quick wins first.

For example, if you discover that 30% of customer support tickets relate to a certain feature, explain how fixing that feature first will reduce company costs by X dollars based on estimated hours of time gained back for support personnel.

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Photo credit: Corey Malone

It all comes down to UX soft skills

While we spend much of our time perfecting the craft of UX so that our clients can quickly see the immediate value of our work, we need to invest equal time into the soft skills of UX.

More often than not UX freelance failures have a lot more to do with perseverance and communication rather than technical skills and design chops.

“Failure is not an option” used to be the way successful people thought. Now that we know that failure is a huge part of becoming better, we must closely examine the opportunities afforded to us with every misstep.

The next time you take on a UX project, remember the 5 points described here. Remember that you want to show clients that you’re a business partner, not just a “UX designer”.

Editor’s note: If you found this article useful, check out the free 100+ page e-book UX Design Process Best Practices.

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