The 10 most important things I’ve learned about remote design freelancing
I’m predominantly a freelance UX consultant, which means I am brought in by companies for a specific project, usually helping them redesign their website. Today I work entirely remotely, allowing me to live in the countryside and be time-flexible with my young family (the above image is the view from my office).
I’ve been freelancing this way for about three years now and it’s been a great learning experience, which has included discovering things that weren’t immediately obvious when I started. If you’re thinking of setting out on your own or even just working more remotely, here’s what I’ve learned, which I hope will give you things to think about…
1. Position yourself
When you go freelance you need to define what service you’re going to provide and for what type of clients. I knew I was going to be doing UX design but that’s still a broad area. Did I really want to do UX design for kid’s magazine sites? Or financial systems? And perhaps more importantly, could I? No, I wanted to choose clients that I understood and could help.
What I can offer is expertise in ecommerce, and more precisely, for growing startups. It took me about a year of client work to see this was the market I should go for, after realising this was a common thread between a lot of my jobs.
Once I reached that realisation, this was how I began to position myself on my website. Even after this, I’ve kept tweaking and finessing how I describe what I specialise in. This doesn’t prevent me taking other clients that might be interesting but it does qualify those potential clients that find me online and makes my marketing more focussed.
For a great walkthrough on positioning, I recommend reading The Positioning Manual.
2. Understand the different hats you wear
As a lone freelancer responsible for your business, there are a few different roles you need to fulfil. These different roles require different modes of working.
Paul Graham has a great article about the manager and the maker and how their calendars tend to differ for getting work done. In my experience as a sole trader, there’s more like three modes: manager, planner, maker.
Manager mode means doing calls and emails with clients as well as those admin tasks like raising invoices and recording expenses. Planner mode is when I need to think through strategy (for myself and clients), and put together documents. Maker mode is when I’m putting together wireframes/prototypes or competitor analyses and need long chunks of time.
Being aware that these are different types of task helps me keep the number of them in balance and helps me know that they need different approaches. For example, I need silence for planner tasks but like to get into the zone with podcasts for maker tasks.
3. Know how you work best
What’s the magic routine for getting lots of work done? Get up at 5am and do everything before breakfast? Schedule your day in half hour chunks? I’m now firmly of the opinion there is no optimal routine. There’s only what works for you.
When I started freelancing I scheduled every task I had to do in my Google Calendar in an attempt to discipline myself into getting everything done. However I’d soon find one task would take longer than its allotted slot and then the schedule would fall apart.
I also tried a thing called the 50/20/50 method but no matter what I kept finding myself falling into manager/admin tasks in the morning before cracking on with the big ‘maker’ tasks of the day in the afternoon (after I’d built up guilt for not starting them earlier!). I was gravitating towards the 1:30–5:00pm slot being when I was able to get my head down. So rather than fight it, this is what I embraced.
It might change over time too, as for me that sweet spot has now shifted to about 11am — 3:30pm.
I’ve found how I work best can change depending on the maker task at hand. In terms of writing articles (like this) where I need to focus and remove distractions, I change the scenery and go to a cafe first thing in the morning. Here I have the wifi off and type away in a single app on my iPad, to churn out the words.
Don’t obsess about reading up on successful people’s routines, just try out a few things and then follow what works for you. This piece is worth reading about the importance of understanding how to divide up your time.
4. Get used to iterating your to do list
Something I’ve realised only recently is just how much juggling of my to do list I do. It’s not a fixed document that owns me but instead something that must be able to constantly react and change.
As long as I’m steadily ticking things off then I know I’m making progress but at least twice a day I re-prioritise what needs to be done in the next week. For example when a new bit of work comes in requiring a couple of new tasks to get done in the next day, then I swap them for something that’s less urgent.
I try to follow a rule of having no more than two big tasks and five small tasks per day. If something less urgent keeps getting bumped then it’s probably a sign that I don’t need to do it. It’s also important to keep each task manageable so it doesn’t seem intimidating — for example break up ‘do user testing’ into ‘write test script’, ‘set up test’, ‘analyse test 1’, ‘analyse test 2’ etc.
I’ve found that staying effective is about being able to identify what the right thing is at the right time. Keep on top of this and you can work smarter not longer. I’ve used Wunderlist for years because it’s a simple tool — I live in the ‘Week’ view.
5. Don’t charge for your time
Just like productivity shouldn’t be measured by time spent on a task (this is a Victorian factory way of thinking that is hard to shake), I don’t believe you should price your work that way either. I aim to give my clients fixed prices for projects based on the tasks I will do for them.
This way it is clear exactly what tasks they’re paying for and if they want to pay a bit less, I can knock a task or two off. Fixed pricing also helps me and the client budget better too, and incentivises projects to be done quickly.
There’s a lot more about value-based pricing on Double Your Freelancing, which explores this area in depth.
6. Work collaboratively with clients
When you’re commissioned by a client are you the type of person who wants to disappear and not show them anything until you have something you’re 100% happy with? If so then you’re taking a massive gamble.
If you want satisfied clients then you need to work collaboratively. This means acting like a member of their team, which is extra important when you’re not co-located with them.
I share everything I learn along the way through research and I try to take them with me in the design process. I get their input early, not at the end when I might have to re-do everything. I can’t think of any major disagreements I’ve had taking this approach and I’ve written about this open working here.
7. Invest in your workspace
It’s worth putting a bit of money into getting the tools you need for your job, especially if you want to be successful at working from home.
I started off without a decent chair or a second monitor and as a result I kept finding myself slumped over my laptop on the sofa — and I got the neck pain that came with it. Once I had invested in an ergonomic chair, a good second monitor, and had a permanent laptop charger in place, I was much more eager to work at my desk.
People can think of it as wasting money on fancy tools, but quite simply the nicer you make your working environment the more time you’ll want to spend there. I recently moved house and was able to kit out a bigger study, where every purchase I’ve made has made me more keen to be working.
I’ve also written about what I carry around in my freelancer bag too.
8. Get out, every day
Probably the biggest health danger of working from home, is the lack of exercise. If you only have to walk a few metres to your office then it becomes easy not to leave the house. I find it really important to get out every day and at least do a 30 minute walk (ideally longer). It stretches the limbs and also helps clear the mind, which is good for sanity.
This can be particularly challenging in the British winter, when it’s dark for about two thirds of the day. I make it non-negotiable to get outside at lunch time, even if it’s a wrench to pull myself away from a task. I’ve managed it when living in the city, and the countryside.
9. Have a business bank account
I recommend having a separate business bank account. It helps remind you that the money earned doesn’t belong to you until after expenses and taxes. However be warned that it took me about three months to get one. It’s a bit of an archaic process with a fee structure to match. This is something I wasn’t aware of going in.
There are now many apps out there that make keeping track of expenses and invoices easy, so there’s no excuse for not staying on top of this. I use Freeagent, which pulls in my business account automatically so labelling payments can be done quickly and regularly, rather than leaving it to be a scary end-of-year task.
10. Diversify your income
Ultimately if you’re a one-person team then you are your own boss who is responsible for keeping things fresh. The great thing is, there are no rules for how you can earn money. Once you’re out of the world of working for one company, you can look at many different income streams.
As well as UX projects for clients, I teach workshops and online courses, mentor individuals, and self-publish books etc. Don’t be afraid to do something you haven’t done before — if it doesn’t work out you can always drop it. Many people see jumping into freelancing as risky but I think you’re arguably safer: you’re not reliant on one income stream and one employer keeping you on.
There are tons of blogs out there by interesting folk around the world who have made freelancing work in new ways. Just like investing in shares, diversification is a good idea.
If you’re thinking about going remote or freelancing, I hope this has been helpful — good luck out there! I’d also be happy to chat further if you have any other questions.