Becoming a Great UX Consultant, Part 2: Some Advice

By Baruch Sachs

Published: April 1, 2013

“You must possess technical, design, and marketing skills to be truly successful as a UX consultant. I find that a large number of UX consultants have the most difficulty with that last skillset.”

Part 1 of this series addressed some myths about what people often believe makes for a great UX consultant. Now, in Part 2, I’ll share some advice that I’ve received from some truly great UX consultants or that I can offer from what I’ve observed through my own experience.

UX consulting always requires a three-pronged approach. You must possess technical, design, and marketing skills to be truly successful as a UX consultant. I find that a large number of UX consultants have the most difficulty with that last skillset.

In my experience, marketing in the world of UX consulting is not just about promoting yourself or your skillset. Marketing yourself means ensuring that the people who have hired you not only want to hire you again, but also tell their colleagues about you. In other words, you need radiation—both within and outside your clients’ organizations—to be successful. To accomplish this, people need to want to work with you. In user experience, the smartest person in the room is not necessarily the one who gets the work. The people who get the most opportunities are those who know how to work well with others, communicate well, and make people believe that they are the one who is going to deliver that amazing user experience they want for their product, application, or Web site.

With that in mind, I want to share three key points with you:

  1. Stop educating people.
  2. You’re there to consult, not to be right.
  3. Know what you are and what you’re not.

1. Stop educating people.

“While our desire to educate is born out of noble intentions for the most part, a great UX consultant does not fall into this trap.”

A common belief among UX professionals is that we have a responsibility to educate others about what we do. We say to ourselves that bad design happens without people meaning for it to happen. If we could just get our clients to understand a few simple things, we could almost turn them into designers. If they just understood Gestalt principles or the basics of interaction design, we could raise the UX design bar.

While our desire to educate is born out of noble intentions for the most part, a great UX consultant does not fall into this trap. Something happens when you try to educate intelligent, busy people. You come off preachy. You come off arrogant. Your desire to transfer knowledge, more often than not, becomes a lecture. Intelligent, busy people hate being lectured.

You are not there to educate people. You are there to advise your client and guide the creation of an amazing user experience. You are the expert; that’s why they brought you in. Collaboration and openness are key here. People need to feel invested, not put upon.

2. You’re there to consult, not to be right.

“As a UX consultant, you must be able to admit when you have made a mistake and offer remedies to correct it.”

While you are, indeed, the UX expert, this does not make you infallible. I have worked with many UX consultants who were afraid to admit ignorance or that they were at fault if they were wrong about something. A lot of this stems from the fact that, as a profession, we have fought long and hard for acceptance within the business and IT communities. So we still feel the need to prove our value. Because of this, many UX consultants question: how can we show value if we admit that we are wrong?

I find that UX consultants sometimes fear that to err is to admit that user experience is at best subjective—even a very grey area that can have only limited impact overall. To become truly great UX consultants, we need to break free of that fear. While there is certainly a need for some caution here, as a UX consultant, you must be able to admit when you have made a mistake and offer remedies to correct it. This is where some UX consultants differ a bit from business consultants. The history of the profession of user experience makes it even more painful to admit that we’ve gotten a design wrong or our usability test results do not reflect actual use. Business consultants know that it is better to admit a misstep, then correct it before it becomes a larger issue.

As a UX consultant, you don’t need to be right all the time simply because your client hired you to be the UX expert. It is far more important to be a consultative partner with your client and help them create the user experience that they’re looking for. When UX professionals solve design problems, we try things out until we find the way that works best. Similarly, you can be truly consultative only if you participate in a collaborative process with your client and recognize that you will not be the one who has the right answer all the time. Other people will have great ideas, too. Sometimes you will make mistakes. It’s how you deal with them that makes you not just a good UX consultant, but a great one.

3. Know what you are and what you’re not.

“It is very important for UX consultants to be able to walk away from a potential consulting engagement with a client when they know they are not a good fit for it.”

User experience is a term that seems to mean everything these days. Unfortunately, this also means that user experience tends to mean nothing in particular. While there are loads of people out there calling themselves UX Consultants, it would be a mistake to think that any UX consultant could know everything about all of the subdisciplines under the UX umbrella these days.

For example, on my consulting team, everyone is a UX expert, but each of us has our own strengths. I had the luxury of building out a significant team that can handle a myriad of UX needs. Whether it is accessibility, user research, interaction design, or usability testing, I know I have someone on my team who excels at it. One- or two-person consultancies don’t always have that luxury, which is why it is very important for UX consultants to be able to walk away from a potential consulting engagement with a client when they know they are not a good fit for it.

When I started out in this profession, I used to think that one of the hallmarks of a great consultant, UX or otherwise, was being able to tackle a problem or a problem space in which they were previously weak and succeed at it. However, after observing talented UX professionals fail at projects they were ill equipped to handle, I started to realize that truly great consultants know when to walk away and hand a project to someone else. That is why, with the field of user experience being as vast as it is, it is critical that you be confident about what your greatest abilities are, but equally aware of which of your skills are not as strong—or even completely lacking. This not only helps you to be a better UX consultant, but improves the marketplace’s overall view of the profession.

9 Comments

This is an excellent article. Many times, as a consultant, I have been brought in because either someone read an article saying they can get a better ROI if they hire a UX person or that someone either from marketing or Web design has been given a back seat because their usability experience is limited. In the second case, the UX person already has a disgruntled team member on their hands. Recently, I have asked developers their opinions in meetings because they are the ones I spend the most time with in the second half of the project. I sense that executives find developers mysterious and will listen to them just out of curiosity. They will sometime dismiss a marketing manager or a designer because they are more involved in those worlds. Having a developer side with you in a discussion does two things. It allows you to have a rapport with them down the line and, regardless of whether they challenge your point or not, you can show the team you’re willing to negotiate with the role player who often carries a lion’s share of the workload on a tight deadline. You often gain the respect of the marketing and design people because they find developers mysterious also. It does help to have some development experience and, if you don’t, geeks love to talk about what they do. Learn something from them. I will admit I’m guilty of all the pitfalls mentioned in the article at one time or another. I like articles like this because it reminds me to round out the hard edges of my interactions with project teams.

Great one. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with fellow UX folks. I agree about your first statement, and the difficult part is that most of us do not realize it until we get the marketing flavor.

I have been a UX consultant (sans marketing) for most of my career. Since 4 years ago, I am working with the Marketing teams, the digital agencies, and the brand teams in a marketing setting, which made me realize how important the marketing experience is for the fulfillment of a UX role. Thanks for pointing this out and reinforcing my belief, which I thought I was the only one thinking about.

Thanks, Rakesh Patwari

I completely agree with key point one, but I’d really like some practical advice on how to actually do it. In a design process, you do not only give advice, you also have to react to suggestions that are not based on UX knowledge.

In my experience, most arguments are extremely educational and, like you said, that really doesn’t work: people get irritated. So I’d appreciate a follow up article on this!

Yes, please follow up on how to actually do it. The don’ts by themselves sound preachy. Can you talk more about how to overcome them; about how we should practice to “advise clients, educate others on what we do”, etc… The don’ts are great if they are also followed by do’s.

Could you please share your ideas or experience on how to react to suggestions that do not come from UX knowledge? Thanks.

For Point 1: I agree that customers don’t need to be educated on our approach. As UX professionals, it is up to us to know our audience and not force them into our way of working.

I will say that it is our role to educate the client on how our work will impact them. For example, why are card-sorting results significant? How will wireframes help in the design process? We don’t need to educate the client on the intricacies of our work, but we do need to answer their questions and make our work meaningful to them.

To put it another way, I don’t need to know how my accountant does what he does, but I do need to know the impact of his work on my company, now and in the future.

Thanks for the article.

I’ve got some advice.

  1. Never let people feel that they’re stupid, because you know something they don’t. So always emphasize their strengths and show them that you’re complementary to each other. Most of the time this is the case. For example, with management, I always make the point that they have to help me get enough room to maneuver. And I ask them if I can ask them for help when I need backup. This way they feel appreciated, and they have a clear role.
  2. Never be afraid to give back the assignment. This is very hard to do, I know. But try it at least once, in a situation in which you have the feeling that things aren’t going well. When you’re not afraid of this, you’ll feel more at ease.

Hi Baruch and thanks for the valuable insight. Our team here at TecEd certainly concurs with your points about what it takes to be a great UX consultant. We’ve added a few suggestions of our own in our blog post inspired by your article.

Hi Baruch—I’ve worked independently for many years, and I’ve also noticed a sharp transition from clients wanting me to do the UX work for them to their hiring me to mentor them through a project while they do the work themselves. So, as you say, we need to understand and learn how to communicate effectively with developers and others with different backgrounds and points of view from ours. Most of my clients are curious to learn what user experience is all about, but they want to make the decisions themselves, so they want a guide and a catalyst versus an expert. Great article!!

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