Let’s get straight to it—we all would like to make more as UX designers. There’s a lot of advice out there about how to raise your rates and get your work noticed, but what about finding and attracting the right clients to sign a UX contract with you?
Here’s what I see most UX designers doing when they’re seeking out higher-paid work:
- Tinkering about updating the content of their portfolio
- Spending hours contemplating “Should I be a UX specialist or generalist?”
- Wondering whether to promote their portfolio on Behance or WordPress
Those things aren’t useless, but they’re not as productive as the process I used to land my first big UX design contract for Net-a-porter.com’s online magazine. Let’s talk about exactly what parts of the design contract process to focus on so you can book that all-important first call with a potential client.
When you can make that happen, you’ll eclipse 95% of your competition right away, and get the UX contracts everyone wants but doesn’t know how to get.
Step 1: Apply to companies who’ll pay you market rate—or more
First, I researched and found the top ecommerce companies I wanted to work for using LinkedIn as my guide.
To do this, type in the name of the companies you want to work for in the search field, then go to their company profile page and click on the yellow “Follow” button in the top right. You’ll start to see posts from employees posting company news and hiring managers posting jobs from those companies.
When you know how to use networking and job search tools like Linkedin to your advantage, you’ll have the tools at your fingertips to build relationships. That’s key to being the top of mind for jobs, especially those that may never even get to a job board.
Second, I created job alerts so I’d get notified when my favorite ecommerce companies were hiring.
To do this, I went to LinkedIn, searched “UX Designer in London” and at the top left, and created alerts to notify me of new UX employment and contract positions advertised in my location.
By focusing on finding UX roles at companies you know can pay you market rate or more (larger companies, successful or well-funded startups, etc.), you’re more likely to reach your goals faster.“Create job alerts on LinkedIn to get notified when your favorite companies are hiring.”
Step 2: Acing the interview before the interview
Because I’d taken time to follow companies and set up alerts on LinkedIn, I saw right away when the Head of UX of Net-a-porter.com posted a message on LinkedIn saying she was looking for a UX designer.
I replied immediately with a thoughtful message saying I was interested and wanted to know the next steps. We arranged a call to chat about my experience and skills. This is what I call “the interview before the interview,” where your potential client wants to assess whether you’re a good fit based on your skills and demeanor.
Needless to say because I ended up getting the job later, this informational interview went incredibly well. Afterward, the Head of UX introduced me to HR for the formal interview process.
The best way to impress a client during the initial call is to ask perceptive questions. These are the questions I asked during my interview-before-the-interview with Net-a-porter.com (and which you can use too):
- “I’m excited you posted a request for a UX designer. Where is your UX focus right now?”
- “Besides an increase in perceived value, what would you like the outcome of your UX design or redesign project to accomplish?”
- “I hope you don’t mind me asking, what does success look like for you as far as the UX design on this project goes?”
All of these questions signal interest and a focus on the prospective client’s goals. Be careful not to ask questions showing lack of interest in what they want, or that focus too much on yourself. Instead, ask questions that reinforce why they’re looking to work with someone, and how your expertise fits their hiring needs.“Focus your questions on your prospective client’s UX goals—not your own needs.”
You can always ask questions about salary and working arrangements in the formal interview process, but this first contact should be to explore the project with the potential client.
Also beware drawing attention to the size of your agency or the fact that you’re a solo designer, if that’s the case—the company is interested in you because of your skills, so don’t be afraid to go after contracts that might traditionally go to a larger company or bigger-name designer.
Step 3: Get a detailed UX design brief or job spec before the interview
Try to get the client to share a detailed design brief and budget with you as early as possible.
The UX design brief outlines the project status. It defines business and customer needs, and it gives you an overview of what the client wants your design work to accomplish.
Knowing the client’s budget allows you to compare if the outcome they want is possible against your market rate and within their timeframe.
But what happens if the client says, “If I share the budget with you, you’ll just tell me that’s what it costs”? To a certain extent, that’s correct. And that’s when you need to know the following points, in case your client has any objections to your rate:
- The exact market rate for your role based on research
- How long it will take you to do the job
- How much you need to allow for contingency
- How many rounds of revisions are included
Knowing the exact market rate for your role gives you the baseline from which to negotiate and avoid getting lowballed. If the client isn’t sure what the market rate should be, you should be able to show them 3 examples of what current employers are paying for the same role.
Here’s exactly what to look for in a design brief:
- The project background—project status so far
- The actual brief—the to-do list
- The objectives and scope—outcomes (these aren’t always apparent and sometimes you have to dig deeper for these)
A clear UX design brief is the foundation for a successful UX project. You want to work with clients who are disciplined in producing detailed design briefs or at defining problems, because it means they understand the UX design process.
A potential client who doesn’t have a clear design brief is going to be hard to work with and is one to avoid. That’s why I suggest you choose large tech companies to pitch, because they’ll have a detailed brief for you to create a pitch from.
Below is an example of a real life, extremely specific UX design brief. The exact details are covered for privacy reasons, but as you can see, it’s very detailed. The client has already identified most of the problem areas that they want you to solve.
What most UX designers do is ask questions during the design brief stage—don’t do that. This puts the onus on the client to make the UX design decisions when, in fact, they are hiring you to do that.
You may be thinking, “But what about clients who don’t know what they want? What do I do then?” If that’s the case, it’s up to you to spring into action and produce three potential design solutions that allow the client to decide what UX design direction they want you to proceed in.“Avoid working with clients who don’t have a clear design brief.”
Here are the actual questions I asked Net-a-porter.com that got me to the interview stage:
- “Legacy data aside, do you have any recent data you could share with me to backup the current design?” (Note: Asking potential clients if they have data to validate the current design will allow you to assess where the current design weaknesses are.)
- “Current design aside, what are your UX design outcomes for this project?”
- “I recently completed a project exactly like yours that resulted in a 300% revenue increase. Would you like to learn more?”
The answers to these questions allowed me to produce a tailored pitch identifying real needs and offering potential solutions based on facts, not fantasy.
Avoid asking overly specific (and generally useless) questions like “What’s your favorite color palette?” or “Do you like this typeface?”
Also avoid asking how much experience they’re looking for in their designer, or if they think your experience is enough. Confidence in your design skills will translate into the conversation.
Step 4: Preparing the UX design pitch
When you get this step right, the client will think you’ve read their mind and the likelihood of you being offered the job is high.
What most UX designers do at this point is prepare a design pitch based on how they think the client should proceed, spending hours creating a proposal that doesn’t match the client’s actual needs. The result is a pitch proposal that totally misses the point.
Here are mistakes I’ve made in the pitch process before:
- Creating a complete redesign of the client’s website and logo that wasn’t asked for or identified in the project brief
- Preparing a pitch in English when the language that is spoken in the client’s office is German
- Including your daily rate in the proposal if it wasn’t agreed upon or if the budget wasn’t shared during the project brief
In contrast, here’s what I did to design the pitch to get the Net-a-porter.com contract:
- Creating 2 or 3 examples of case studies of design work you did in a previous role that relates to the client’s design brief and exceeds expectation
- Hosting your case studies, wireframes, sketches, and clickable prototype on InVision so you can present a link to the case studies folder
- Stating your strengths and three reasons why you would be a good fit for the client’s UX design team (if they have one)
Here are the 3 phases of a UX research and design pitch that you can use to present to the client:
- The discovery phase—the research phase
- The design phase—the sketch phase
- The development/production phase—the execution and delivery phase
Breaking the pitch proposal down into the 3 stages will provide the structure for the pitch plan. Next to each step, be sure include a timeline, deliverable, and cost based on the client’s actual confirmed budget.
In the introduction, I summarized the UX design brief and included:
- The 3 user-centered design phases
- The tasks associated with achieving each phase
- A timeline for completing each phase
I then printed it out on nice stock so that the client would be able to refer to it during the pitch meeting (you could also email it to the customer).
Most clients expect to receive proposals within 24 hours of your catch-up call. Or, if you would like more impact, you can present it during the actual pitch meeting. It’s up to you—both ways are acceptable.
Step 5: Create a winning pitch using prototypes
So now you’ve spoken to the client, you’ve got the brief, you’ve outlined your pitch, and an interview date is confirmed. Now… what are you going to show them during the pitch?“Create pitches in InVision for clickable prototypes and ‘close-to-live’ functions.”
These are the documents and designs I prepared for Net-a-porter.com:
- Sketched out the user flow based on hierarchy of user needs
- Created the wireframes in Sketch
- Uploaded the wireframes into InVision
- Shared the mobile app with the client
And this is what I showed during the pitch:
1. The mobile view wireframe I created in Sketch App for the Net-a-porter.com pitch:
2. The mobile web view home screen, uploaded to InVision and presented as a clickable prototype:
3. The global header menu wireframe uploaded to InVision and presented as a clickable prototype:
Here are some tips for creating a winning pitch in InVision:
- Use hotspots to make the prototype clickable and to show as near to the finished product usability feel as possible
- SMS the finished mobile prototype using InVision to your mobile to test the prototype, or SMS to your client’s mobile in advance of the pitch for them to view
- Fix headers and footers to recreate modern functionality
- Live share the project with clients and through ongoing iterations
- User test with usability video feedback from potential customers to show the client at the pitch meeting
When a UX designer arrives unprepared for a pitch interview, the client thinks you’re disorganized, unprepared, and wasting their time.
When I came prepared, I elevated my status to someone who cares about the client’s needs and can get the job done. Using these tactics will make it easy for the client to say yes and hire you on the spot, accelerating your career in UX design.