Can UX Designers live the digital nomad lifestyle?
What would you rather have on your back? An angry boss breathing down your neck or sun rays getting you tan and warming the sand? Digital nomads prefer the latter.
Digital nomads travel the world, make their income online, and decide that sun glare on their laptop screens is a better problem to have than getting up and going to the same office every day.
This world is full of highly skilled coders, entrepreneurs, or wannabes that blog about the DN lifestyle and come home from Thailand broke. The path is full of risk and hard work.
So can a User Experience Designer live the digital nomad lifestyle?
The often discouraging digital nomad community would warn you against this. UX Designers often claim it isn’t possible because design work is collaborative and should be done face to face.
This couldn’t be more wrong. Let’s take a look at the must haves for all UX Designers, and how they can be achieved remotely:
Research: Living in Thailand doesn’t mean you’ll have to learn Thai and get user data from locals. Interviews and screen sharing studies can be conducted online through Skype or Zoom. You can run user tests with real users using websites like usertesting.com, trymyui.com, and usabilityhub.com. You can even do online card sorting with optimalworkshop.com. Not every feature on these sites are free, but you can usually get by without paying a dime for smaller studies.
Clients: Websites like upwork.com have plenty of work available for UX Designers. Other resources include freelancer.com, word of mouth, MeetUps (have a business card), and workingnomads.co for remote UX jobs. I hope this goes without saying, but you will need a solid portfolio to land a gig. WARNING: Finding freelance opportunities can be hard. Get a gig FIRST, then get on the plane.
Collaboration: Almost every design program has sharing and collaboration options now (Sketch, Framer, InVision Studio, etc). Figma is becoming increasing popular because it allows real time collaboration. Figma is basically the Google Docs of design applications.
Feedback: Every designer needs feedback, which is often even easier to give and receive online. Aside from e-mail and video chats, programs like InVision allow comments on designs which can allow you to skip meetings altogether.
Communication: Speaking of meetings, design can often involve more talking about design then actually designing. Meetings and presentations can be done through Skype, Zoom, or Google Hangouts. In most countries, it’s even easy to get a cheap SIM card for your phone if you need to be available at all times.
Many sacrifice job fulfillment just to be a digital nomad. They will handle 20 social media accounts for various companies or take low paying and soul sucking SEO gigs. As a remote UX Designer, you can have the freedom to travel the globe with one of the best jobs in the world.
All of this has its downsides of course. Not only will you have to fulfill your design duties, but you might find yourself being your own marketer and account manager. You will likely not have health benefits. Timezone issues can make client meetings rough, and if you are a UX Researcher, ethnographic studies are nearly impossible (but still rare).
Finding new clients will be hard and you will need to build up a strong online reputation through reviews and blog posts. Newbie freelancers and junior UX Designers might consider starting small and taking partial design process gigs at first such as jobs that only require building personas, user flows, or wireframes.
Loneliness can set in as well, but there are tons of likeminded travelers all around the world to connect with in this community. Great cities to stay long term are Chiang Mai in Thailand, Ubud in Bali, and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. The cost of living is low yet the quality is high, the WiFi is reliable (mostly), and there are tons of great coffee shops to work from.
Imagine it now. You’re by the beach eating fried rice from a hollowed out pineapple in Thailand, and you won’t go broke because you’re making a killer MVP for your client in Texas at the same time.
Backpacking is fun but a younger person’s game. Quitting jobs to travel will mess up your resume and employers will question this. Digital nomads get to actually be their own bosses! Travel is generally slower and they get the opportunity to really embrace their new countries, often living less expensively than in their home countries.
If you are looking for a creative route to becoming a digital nomad, UX Design is no longer considered off limits.