Are You a Born Consultant?

By Baruch Sachs

Published: December 17, 2012

“Some people are just born consultants. They just have it. They intrinsically know what to say, what to do, and how to do it.”

There is a lot of literature out there that discusses whether leaders are born or made. Before I became a consultant, I weighed in on the born side of things. A good leader is shaped by events and experiences, but always has that leadership spirit within.

I started thinking recently about whether consultants—specifically, UX consultants—are born or made. As someone who works for a software vendor with a wide range of clients, I’ve had the fortunate experience of not only being a consultant myself and working with a team of consultants, but also of interacting directly with other groups of UX consultants.

Much like leaders, some people are just born consultants. They just have it. They intrinsically know what to say, what to do, and how to do it. My grandfather used to tell me: “There are two real reasons to work: for enjoyment and for money. And unless you have the latter, the former will be hard to come by.” My grandfather was right about a lot of things, but on this point, I think he was a little off. Really good consultants make money because they enjoy what they do. Because they enjoy it, they are good at it. To get to that point, either you were born to this line of work or you’ll have to work harder than you ever thought possible to become a great consultant.

The UX Flavor of Consulting

“Handling the diversity in our engagements requires the ability to smoothly transition between contexts and anticipate the varied expectations of the people who hire us.”

General books, seminars, lectures, and classes on consulting are out there in force. When it comes to user experience though, I find that the general information that is out there is not really all that helpful to someone trying to learn how to become a really proficient UX consultant. Now, this may be because the field of user experience is so vast and diverse that it is hard to find what really applies to you without a lot of searching. However, as UX consultants, we may either do many different things or be very specialized.

As 2012 comes to a close, I have been spending a lot of time looking at the various types of engagements in which I and my team have been involved. We have spent time doing everything from UX workshops, strategic design, wireframing, user research, and usability testing to UI configuration and branding. The complexity of each one of these flavors of UX consulting is compounded by the fact that we deal with an incredible number of different industries. Sometimes we engage with business, at other times with IT, and sometimes internal UX teams engage our services. Handling the diversity in our engagements requires the ability to smoothly transition between contexts and anticipate the varied expectations of the people who hire us.

Being a Chameleon

“You cannot be a great UX consultant and create stellar experiences if you don’t love interacting with and learning about people and what makes them tick.”

One of the best compliments I have ever received as a UX consultant was from a new hire who was shadowing me. He spent all day with me, from the airport to a late-night customer dinner. Even before arriving at the customer site, he saw me interact with airport security staff, customs agents, taxi drivers, and hotel staff. Once we got to the customer site, we sat with hourly call-center employees to hear what they liked and disliked about our product and how they used it. We then met with various levels of IT and business people, until we finally had dinner with the organization’s CIO and various VP-level business people. At the end of the day, I asked our new hire how he enjoyed himself. While he did not have a consulting background, he did have very deep UX expertise, and I suspected that he just had it when it came to consulting.

He turned to me and said that he had not realized the level to which a UX consultant has to recognize and care about all the various levels of people he interacts with. He said, as a UX professional, all he wants to do is design and create better user experiences. He then proceeded to tell me that he felt I was like a chameleon, who could change the way he is depending on his environment. I responded that, although chameleons change their colors depending on their environment, underneath it all they are still chameleons. You cannot be a great UX consultant and create stellar experiences if you don’t love interacting with and learning about people and what makes them tick. Don’t change yourself and your beliefs, but allow yourself to blend with others to create positive change.

As UX consultants, we are not just helping people to solve problems, we are designing solutions that affect organizations and structures that are far more complex than ourselves. UX designers who just design based on their own views will be limited in their greatness.

Smashing a Square Peg into a Round Hole

“We are often called upon to be mediators, bringing different groups of people into the same room—who would otherwise never meet together—to discuss important topics.”

I believe that some of the struggles UX consultants experience come from having to do a job that oftentimes goes beyond what we are trained to do. UX consultants almost always have a strong creative side, yet we are also expected to work like IT and business people. We work in that very common medium of the user interface, or presentation layer, so we are often called upon to be mediators, bringing different groups of people into the same room—who would otherwise never meet together—to discuss important topics. While we may design user experiences for our client’s customers, they also expect us to craft experiences that disparate groups of internal customers can agree on and get behind. That’s tough work for any level of consultant.

Back to the Question

“The ability to be a great consultant is about your mindset and will. Whether you are naturally acclimated to consulting or have to work hard to get there, it is these two personal attributes that will steer you in the right direction.”

This column’s title asks whether UX consultants are born or made. I personally feel that I was born to this line of work. Many aspects of consulting come easy to me, and I truly enjoy it. Yet I’ve also found that great UX consultants can be made. That new hire I mentioned earlier? I turned out to be wrong about that person. He struggled greatly with a lot of the consulting aspects of the job. He had great UX skills, but was not always able to convey his ideas to clients. However, through mentoring and a great deal of hard work on his part, he turned himself into a world-class consultant. The ability to be a great consultant is about your mindset and will. Whether you are naturally acclimated to consulting or have to work hard to get there, it is these two personal attributes that will steer you in the right direction.

3 Comments

Fully agree. There is a clear distinction between those who can and do function as UX consultants, and those that are better suited as designers or researchers. It’s a rare individual that is equally suited to all three. I have recently seen several terrific designers fail in a consulting role simply because they could not communicate thoughtfully and strategically or build and sustain key relationships. Great article. Thanks!

Born or made, certainly both. But if someone is enjoying the job, that is a sure sign he has got born instincts, I believe.

One who gathers the wisdom from real-life experiences, who compares the read theories to every practical situation, listens to the feedback and correlates it with analyzed facts, who appears as a business leader, who can be a manager, who loves to be a designer, but is still drawn toward sharing his concepts with others in a productive way would be a born UX Consultant.

In summary, this article states the author’s opinion that consultants are either born with the required skills or get them through “mentoring and a great deal of hard work.”

The author also tells a story about how he thought he could pick people who have this skill, but he cannot.

The last pearl of unsubstantiated wisdom is “the ability to be a great consultant is about your mindset and will.”

Insignificantly, a story is told about “best compliments [the author has] ever received.”

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