We hosted a DesignTalk with Uday Gajendar on how to become a UX consultant. Below is the full recording and an excerpt of the talk, edited for length and clarity. Enjoy!
Uday: I’ve structured today’s presentation into a 3-act play:
- Act 1: The setup of how to become a UX consultant
- Act 2: The action of working in a consultative capacity
- Act 3: Insights to guide your personal growth as a professional person (and human being)
When I left one of the startups and decided to do my own thing, I realized that I didn’t just want to be a wireframer for hire—I wanted to find that sweet spot that brought together passion, expertise, and growth.
I’m a big fan of Charles Eames, and I often reference this diagram where he pools together these overlapping concerns of the designs. There’s the concern of the client, concern for society and culture, the concern for yourself as a professional. And when they come together and overlap, there’s that sweet spot where it all kind of converges together.
Eames describes it as the area of overlapping interest and concern where the designer can work with conviction and enthusiasm.
I wanted to find that sweet spot for myself. So, I did a lot of deep thinking, and I realized an important lesson: If you want to become a UX consultant, you must take an intentional approach.
For me, it was trying to find that sweet spot and also spin up what I call the virtuous cycle.
How to figure out what to focus on
Everyone has their own goals and aspirations. I wanted to become a force multiplier where I was engaged in teaching, speaking, and consulting. And they’re all feeding and forming and guiding each other by virtue of the opportunities I wanted to pursue.
“You are a product of your own narrative.”
This ties into a line I heard from Sarah Khoury, who recently spoke at the O’Reilly Design Conference. She said that you are a product of your own narrative, and I think that’s what this all comes down to.
You have to be honest with yourself in order to define a narrative that’s meaningful for you, so that you don’t just become a hired gun. Instead, you’re actually creating something that is productive, meaningful, and helps spur on your passion and growth.
So, I wanted to become this force multiplier and really connect the teaching, consulting, and speaking. I wanted to take an intentional approach to positioning myself in a certain way.
Way back in the mid-2000s, I did some consulting. It was organic and just kind of happened accidentally. This time—after 15 years—I wanted to position myself in terms of the kind of expertise and the kind of guidance I can bring to the table. In effect, I positioned myself as a principle designer for hire.
There were specific things I wanted to focus on. I encourage you to do a little gut-check and figure out the specific key phrases or qualifiers that define who you are, and the kind of value you bring to the table for your clients.
- Who am I?
- What is it I like to do?
- What is it I want to do?
- What am I really great at?
With those 4 answers, I drafted a 1-pager.
Now, you may have different things, and you should. For me it was digital product design, next-generation concepts, UX coaching, and rapid expert design—which is kind of a variation of digital product design. But they’re all frayed within consulting.
The whole point is to constrain yourself. I didn’t want to take any job just because it’s available. I highly encourage everyone to self-assess and figure out that constraint you place upon yourself, and how you drive and direct your value toward specific outcomes.
“What key phrases define who you are?”
Again, this is all part of the setup. I haven’t started consulting yet—I’m still trying to set myself up and get myself out there in a much more deliberate fashion. Now, after the deep-thinking and self-assessment, analysis, there’s some practical realities.
Business cards, your website, getting your blog refreshed and updated, updating your LinkedIn profile, tackling social media. The whole point is you want to use them as channels. Think of it as an omni-channel brand strategy for yourself to push your point home about who are you and what kind of value do you provide.
Because at the end of the day, you’re looking for clients—and, of course, you want to get paid.
You do have to hustle
Now, the other part of the reality is that there’s so much hustling. There’s so much networking that has to be done. It’s all about communication. And therein lies what John Maeda has often spoke of: building relationships.
It’s critical. If you want to do good design work, you’ve got to build relationships first in order to set yourself up for success and do design work.
I know—it kind of sounds smarmy and sneaky or whatever. You’ve got to go out there, you’ve got to network, and you’ve got to talk to the talk.
But I’d offer an alternative perspective: this is more about building relationships. It’s about making connections, and you have to want this. You have to want to make a meaningful connection with somebody and to really learn about who is out there in terms of potential clients.
“Want to do good design work? You’ve got to build relationships first.”
I had a list of the kinds of clients I was looking at: design agencies that might need some extra hands, venture capitalist firms, accelerators for the startups, large corporations the might need an outside perspective, or even mid-level startups that may have hired some junior folks and need someone more at a consultative capacity to help guide and direct and support.
But, again, for those conversations to be meaningful, you’ve got to be authentic. It’s more than just going out and having coffee. The idea is not just random discussion, it’s having a goal in mind. You should walk into that conversation knowing what you want to get out of it. Is it an understanding of a certain type of business? Is it opportunities that make sense to you? Is it some other kind of outcome that you’re hoping to get out of it?
And it could be just be that you want to get to know somebody, and that’s fine. But walk into it knowing that you have an outcome. Know what you’re trying to get out of meeting someone for coffee. Set up next steps if you want to do a follow-up. Always send a follow-up email. Be proactive, be polite, be confident.
What I found effective, because I was having so many coffees with so many different people, is that I needed to keep a spreadsheet. In fact, I needed a CRM system, and I actually started to think about designing one for myself. I just created a Google spreadsheet where I included the names of people I met, when I met them, what we talked about, and what the next steps are.
I’d check in on my spreadsheet on Mondays and Fridays to get a sense of where the pulse was going. Who’s a warm lead, and which one is cooling down? Should I reach out to them again? It’s been a while. Which ones are hot because they really want to get something going quickly?
It was an effective tool for myself. I highly recommend getting some way to track all of that, because otherwise you’ll forget.
For more of how Uday setup becoming a UX consultant, and his acts 2 and 3, watch the full recording of the DesignTalk in the video above!
Uday Gajendar is a catalyst for design-driven innovation, defining next-generation concepts & coaching start-ups on UX fundamentals. Uday’s specialities include creating visionary concepts for new business/revenue models, leading "3-in-a-box" design collaborations with engineering & product, and shaping a progressive design culture.
Margaret Kelsey leads content marketing at Appcues. Before Appcues, she built content programs for InVision’s design community for 3.5 years and has roots in painting and PR. She’s a big fan of puns, Blackbird Donuts, and Oxford commas—probably in that order.