How to Succeed in UX Research Without Wasting Your Time
When I was a new consultant, I discovered that it wasn't enough to just have UX expertise; I also needed to find clients. I realized that I needed a deeper understanding of who hires a UX researcher and why. Was it typically product managers? The head of market research? What problems do they usually need solved? How can an independent consultant complete with larger agencies? To answer my questions, I did the most meta thing of all:
I conducted user research on user researchers.
My specific goal was to learn enough about how the business worked to structure a sales-strategy and service offerings that would make hiring me a no-brainer. Although I focused specifically on UX research, much of it can apply to other newly independent consultants.
Potential participants were identified by searching "UX" and "user research" on Clarity and LinkedIn (I knew 2 participants through prior introductions). I spoke with a total of 8 UX-ers. I focused on individuals who emphasize research more than design (although one or two also did some design). They ranged from being relatively early in their careers (3-5 years) to fairly advanced (more than 20 years). Nearly all of them had worked in a consulting capacity at some point, although some of them had moved to in-house positions. Calls were about 20 minutes long and everyone spoke with me out of the goodness of their hearts.
What 2+ hours of interviews revealed:
There's no such thing as a "typical" project.
Virtually everyone I spoke with paused when I asked "What does your typical project look like?" I was hoping that a single thing could be my bread and butter, or that at the bare minimum I would understand what a common client request would look like. It seems that to be a freelance UX researcher, you have to be a jack of all trades. The client will vary. The goal will vary. The methodology will vary. Sometimes it's wire-framing. Sometimes it's working on internally-facing software. You do it all.
It's all who you know.
As a budding consultant, it's important for me to understand where and how most successful researchers find their work. Time and time again, it was through referral work. "Once someone knows you and knows you can do good work, they'll bring you back in time and time again." At first, this was disappointing news. It's the classic Catch 22 of starting out: how do you get referral work if no one already knows you? But I realized that I could reframe the goal: make sure people know you. The goal becomes to get in front of as many people as possible and demonstrate expertise and value. That ties into something else I learned...
Make it an easy decision.
I've lost countless hours preparing custom proposals, with no guarantee that it would lead to a closed deal. That's because each client's needs, strategic goals, internal politics and practical limitations vary from one to another. In the end, it's unclear what exactly a UX researcher could do for them, how long it would take, and what it would cost. Suddenly, hiring someone like me sounds hard. But what if it was an easy decision? For this reason, I'm focusing on productizing my services. Enterprise clients should know exactly what they're going to get before they hire me: how much it will cost, what they will get, and when they will see results. This simple offering will be the "Step 1," the one thing every client will use as a starting point, no matter what they need. This will allow companies to hire me easily, putting me in front of lots of people, and ultimately allowing me to be their go-to solution next time they have a problem I could help solve.
The real competition is the status quo.
Time and time again, when I asked "If someone doesn't hire you, what do they do instead," I got the same answer: nothing. It turns out, the real competition isn't other UX consultants, design agencies, or development shops. More often than not, it's inaction. Companies forgo the excellent for the good enough, and that often means leaving something broken.
If people don't already get research or data, you're wasting your time.
The first few months I was consulting, I would occasionally interact with clients who didn't understand why they needed to make data-driven decisions. This felt like a no-brainer to me. Don't the top companies ALL do this? I found myself completely unprepared to justify why unbiased information is the best kind. I decided convincing people of something was not one of my strengths (that's OK. I've got plenty.). It turns out, I'm not alone in this experience. After asking researchers how they approach this challenge, I frequently heard some version of "you're wasting your time." It turns out, data is like religion. Some people love it, and some people don't. Rather than spending too much time on educating clients on the value of testing and iterating, collecting user feedback, and thinking critically about how to utilize their responses, it's best just to find people who already get it. Then, you're better positioned to focus on collecting great information (and actually getting it implemented).
Lastly, this community is spectacularly generous.
Everyone I spoke to gave me their time without condition. In many cases, this was in response to a cold email, donating their time to a complete stranger. On top of their time, some sent me additional resources, book recommendations, or even put me in touch with a colleague who was able to offer more insight. I'm proud to be part of such a generous community and I hope that sharing this information will help others propel their consulting careers.