Freelancer for Life – 5 Reasons Why This Works
“Being small is nothing to be insecure or ashamed about. Small is great. Small is independence. Small is opportunity. Celebrate it…It’s truly to your advantage.”
– Jason Fried
I was recently invited to talk to a group of international business students about my company. The idea was to bring in companies of different sizes and have them describe what they have to offer. While it was only a 10 minute talk meant to enlighten students, it actually gave me the opportunity to reflect on what I have learned over the past 6 years as a consultant.
1. I am passionate about being a one-man company.
I want to make it very clear that I have no intention of ever changing that. For the past six years, it’s been just my dog and I doing great work for clients without the distraction of the overhead of running a larger business. When I started consulting, there was the plan that when the client load grew, I would need to hire others. I believed that the only way to get bigger clients was to get bigger (e.g. more employees). The reality that I found was that working with amazing freelancers, I had the opportunity to continue growing and support other one-man companies like myself.
2. It’s not an in-between jobs thing.
I have been working professionally in this industry for the past 18 years. Working for small bureaus and network agencies like BBDO and Bates was great, but the longest I ever held a full-time position was two years. People are surprised when I say it, but the last six years of running my own company has been the best work experience of my life (and I have the best boss!). It is the most stable, revenue secure, and challenging job that I have ever had. The rewards are endless and I love what I do. I think Paul Jarvis says it best when he describes his own freelancing experience:
“I believe freelancing is the ultimate way to take control of my life, my finances and my daily happiness. I don’t freelance as an interim step until I build a wildly successful product or a huge company. This is a long-term, long-lasting career that’s now more stable than any corporate job. I freelance because I love being a freelancer. It gives me the ability to chart my own path in life, not to mention working in my underwear (with my clients being none-the-wiser). I choose who I work with, when I work, and most importantly, when I don’t need to work.”
3. No full-time job would change my mind.
I’ve been approached by some of the largest companies out there as well as most top digital agencies. When Apple came calling, I had to decline. Don’t get me wrong, I love Apple. They are pioneers in design and they offer some of the best user experiences. I believe that designing concepts for iOS10 or doing design for upcoming streaming services sounds like an amazing opportunity, but there’s also someone designing templates for Keynote or iAD frameworks. Freelancing frees me to have control of the projects I take, the location I am at, and the flow of my work. Working in Sweden has amazing benefits like paid vacation and healthcare that make it the ideal place in the world for me to work.
4. I’m not tied to geographic borders.
Simply put, I help clients define a problem, outline a solution, and execute it. If none of these things are bound by geographic boundaries, why should I be? Working with international clients can be exceptionally difficult for larger companies and the costs rise accordingly. I have learned to be understanding of the cultures of each client and that allows me to grow strong business relationships. Knowing how to effectively communicate, when to push through or step down, or even understanding how they view work is important to each project. The only disadvantage I’ve run into is that having clients from around the world means it is always business time for someone. Setting the right expectations can ease that burden, but it can be difficult.
5. It’s not as lonely as you think.
One of the key questions I often get is if I get lonely. The short answer is absolutely not. I work very closely with all of my clients and am dedicated to their success. I am always talking to someone and forming good relationships with them. These personal relationships with my clients put me in the position to help them make wise business decisions. A larger agency would struggle with being able to establish this personal relationship with each client.
Thinking all of this through has convinced me to change my primary domain from lepetitgarcon.com (company) to antonsten.com (me). I’m just me, there is no one else, and I’m happy to say that I have no intention to change that.
Working with me
A couple of weeks ago I sent a small survey to selected clients. I wanted a quick and easy way for them to be able to tell me what they think of working with me and the work I deliver. Each client could leave a comment and decide if they wanted to leave their name or not.
There was one specific comment that made me extra happy. It’s short, just two sentences but it captures so much of what I think is important when working with me.
Are you ready for it? Here goes:
“What impresses me most is the way Anton understand the underlying needs of the business, and translates that into a beautiful solution. Anton is very easy to work with and he is good at finding the balance between listening and pushing.”
If we break it down, here’s what I love about it:
As a designer, my job is not to create pretty things. My job is to understand the underlying business needs and translate these into a well-crafted solution. This involves understanding the client and their business as well as it involves understanding their end users and their needs. The client in question is the world’s largest electricity supplier (E.ON) and I’m helping them with an online tool for their largest corporate clients. Needless to say, I am not part of their target audience. But as a UX-designer, it’s my job to understand how someone who’s a site operator thinks. It’s my job to understand and develop the features an accountant will need.
Working with, especially, large corporations is very different from working with smaller start-ups. The pace and the time it takes to get things implemented is very different. It’s essential to understand the possibilities as well as the limitations of any client that you work with. And most of all, it’s important to understand when to push and when to pull back.
Creating an online experience is not a sprint, it’s like so much else, a marathon. And as a designer, I need to be able to know my body well enough to know when to push and when to slow down and just enjoy the scenery.
Here’s a selection of quotes from other clients.
Planners and UX-Designers
Chloe Gottlieb on planners and UX-designers:
“The two minds—the experience designer and the planner—are so important because as I look for pain points and things that will add value over time, the planners look for dissonance and interesting elements that will stand out. By combining these two mind-sets, we’re looking for patterns and dissonance together. It gets really juicy and really interesting.”
I do share her reasoning that different types of people (roles) will look for different solutions and pain points. Different perspectives on the same problem should ideally give a more thought through solution.
However, I think it’s clear from the quote that R/GA’s blood is marketing rather than product design.
From a product design perspective I’m trying to create an experience without elements that stand out but rather a seamless, simple and efficient solution. People that use products daily want things that just work – not things that stand out and create fraction against the rest of the experience.
Kudos – Social Media framework
I’ve recently done some changes to my website, the most significant one being going from company-focused (Le Petit Garcon) to solely being me. More on that later though and the reasoning behind it.
Another thing is that I’m back at blogging. I’ve read through tons of old posts (and even reposted some of them here) but interesting to see is the most shared content since 2011 is the post about ‘Kudos’. Ironically, since it’s about what kind of content is social media friendly.
Here’s the re-cap of Kudos:
Kudos is a planning and evaluation framework for social media marketing.
When planning a piece of social media we need to ask ourselves if it is going to be;
Does this activity demonstrate knowledge on the part of the brand? Is it something that you know about our product category that your competitors don’t? Is it knowledge that is unique to your brand, product or service? From the audience’s point of view you need to consider if its something they need or want to know. Are you increasing their knowledge or just telling them something they already know or could have gained elsewhere?
Not all of social media activity is useful to the brand’s audience. Not all dissemination of knowl- edge is actually useful to the brand. It might be commercially sensitive. It might promote an out of stock product or a discontinued service. The best-case scenario is when an activity is useful to both the brand and the audience such as with Amazon’s product ratings; the audience benefits by having unbiased reviews to help them make their decisions. Amazon benefits from the free content and additional product information for its audience. I’d add here that providing entertainment is actu- ally useful. Ask any bored office worker, student or house bound parent – a good laugh has plenty of use.
Thinking through the desirability of an activity can be a great check against what is assumed to be useful. By desirable we mean that both the brand and the audience actively want it. This is a step on from useful. Think of eating your greens; useful but not that desir- able. Conversely, consider for a moment the joys of unlimited self saucing sticky date pudding – desirable – oh yes, but no, not actually that useful. If something is desirable, really tasty-can’t-get-enough-of-it desir- able to your audience you’ll know it. The servers will fall over. Your hosting bill will go through the roof and you’ll get calls from the IT department over the weekend screaming about terabytes of data. Desirable is a can be a challenge because making something truly desirable is actually quite tricky.
Used to the impression of control that broadcast media had previ- ously afforded them, open is a concept that some brands have been struggling with. Open means honest and transparent. Not just about the parts of the message that are desirable to the brand, but about the whole lot, warts and all. An audience will respond very actively and negatively when they believe a brand has been dishon- est with them. There are lost of examples of where brands have been dishonest and been caught. Don’t be one of them. It doesn’t even require active dishonesty – just a lack of intent to be com- pletely open can come across badly.
Another degree further of open is making the activity sharable. Are the materials easily downloadable? Can it be linked to or have you gone and wrapped them up in a big Flash movie that no one can link to? If it’s a Flash movie then there’s less material that can be shared in social book- marking sites like del.icio.us, Digg and Stumbleupon. It is as im- portant as being open that the brand then follow that up by making the activity sharable by acknowledging standard protocols that enable sharing and by actively promoting sharing with a simple “Digg this” button or a downloadable Zip file of assets.
Here’s the original Kudos – PDF.
Understanding UI Design – Lost in an online world
UI Design looks familiar…
If you’ve been looking around the digital sphere, you may recognize the term UI Design, or perhaps you might know its counter part, UX Design.
You can learn about UX Design here.
Whilst both UX Design and UI Design work closely together, each role refers to extremely different processes when it comes to designing and building a website. Though this does not stop people from misrepresenting or misunderstanding both roles.
Rahul Varshney, co-creator of the site Foster.fm describes this difference in the first of many metaphors people like to use when discussing both terms:
“A UI without UX is like a painter slapping paint onto canvas without thought; while UX without UI is like the frame of a sculpture with no paper mache on it”
This metaphor doesn’t necessarily explain the role of UI Design, but it does highlight the nature of the relationship between UX Design and UI Design.
User Experience Design focuses on how the user thinks and feels.
User Interface Design looks at how the content is organized and used.
A door handle is UI Design.
The fact you need a door is UX Design.
Which one is more important?
Both are crucial and play an important role in building a site.
Of course there are millions of websites, apps and software programs that may contain one without the other. But consider how much better off they would be had they taken advantage of both.
What does a UI Designer aim to do?
- To compliment the work of a UX Designer by translating their research and requirements into an attractive, guiding and responsive experience for users.
- To make sure all visual elements are consistently displayed and adhering to a style guide.
In an example:
The UX Designer decides that there needs to be a ‘thank you’ box that appears after a customer has registered their details.
The UI Designer decides that this box appears in the top left in blue in Helvetica.
A better example?
A UI Designer will design each page on a website in accordance with the UX Designers recommendations.
They might be transferring some analytical data into a graph or dashboard on one of these pages. They might decide to move the more important information to the top of the page, or it might make more intuitive sense to include a zoom or sliding function to adjust the graph.
That’s sounds like a Web Designer.
There are a lot of overlapping responsibilities between a Web designer and a UI Designer, and often a UI Designer can fulfill the role of a web designer as well as a graphic designer, brand designer and a frontend developer.
But there is a distinctive separation.
Most of those roles focus on translating design into code.
But a UI Designer is responsible for translating the brand’s strengths and aesthetical values into a usable and attractive interface.The interface is what a customer will be navigating around and interacting with. It’s the visual composition of the page.
It’s everything the customer will be looking at.
A UI designer looks at branding and visual design principles as oppose to cognitive analysis.
They’re designing graphics, constructing the layout and introducing appropriate typeface.
Think of UI like a tool.
It’s a medium of communication between a person and a company. By presenting your websites information in a well-formulated and attractive layout, you are allowing your customer to interact with information and your company.
You are causing them to behave with your company. As such, it means it is observable, measurable, and testable.
How do they know what works?
Like any designer, a UI Designer will keep their eye trends in their field. Just like a furniture designer will keep tabs on new developments and ideas, a UI Designer will look at other interfaces and designers to see other ways a website can be maximized.
What’s cool in the UI World?
1. Content chunking – This is way to break up large information, by separating them into chunks by using sub headings, new paragraphs and pictures. Like what we have done here. It makes it a lot easier to digest.
2. Laser Focus – This is when a design of a page will cause someone to complete an action by making it really obvious. Like when you sign on to Google, there is a blank bar to write in. Immediately you are drawn to think that this is the most obvious and prioritised task to complete.
3. Context Sensitive Navigation & Collapsed content – This is just asking the question, what items should be seen all the time and some hidden. Like how you don’t see a ‘like’ or ‘next’ option until you cursor drags over an image. Or you don’t see the full menu until you click on that little icon in the top left.
4. Minimalism – No longer are we interested in multi-colour or rich gradient buttons or text. It’s all about being simple and colour minimal.
5. Long pages – we used to like having everything sorted into different pages, using our mouse and a menu bar to navigate through everything. But this requires a lot of work from users. It works better to keep things simple and easy by building it all on to one page.
In short, what are a UI Designer’s Responsibilities?
- Customer Analysis
- Design Research
- Branding and Graphic Development
- User Guides
- Animation and interactivity
- Transference for all devices and screen sizes
- Implementation with a developer
In a sentence:
A UI Designers responsibility is to build an attractive interface in order to enhance the relationship between the customer and the brand.
UX Design explained
There’s something distinctively special about the way digital designers think.
They keep weird hours, exhibit odd habits and they throw a lot of jargon around – leaving those in the offline community a little dazed and confused. Most of the time you needn’t bother with trying to translate a lot of what they’re saying, but if you are running a live site, there is one word you need to quickly and closely become acquainted with:
You’ve probably seen this term, UX Design, thrown around a bit. You’ve probably seen it in the same sentence with words like:
- Information Architecture
- Interaction Design
- Graphic Design
- Web Design
- Web Coding
And especially the words: User Interface Design.
And you’ve probably seen UX and UI Design paired with a lot of metaphors, each as entertaining and confusing as the last. But UX design is none of these things. It may hang out with or heavily overlap with some of these things, but it is not actually any of those things.
It is UX Design.
It’s a field of expertise that stands as an independent and crucial component in website development, backed by a community of specialist professionals with enough specialist jargon to leave you begrudgingly clueless.
I can help you with that.
What does UX Design mean?
UX Design is an abbreviation for User Experience Design.
This expansion might allow you to understand its purpose a little better.
In fact, you may have even drawn your own conclusion that it’s about the design of a user’s experience.
If so, well done.
“User Experience encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services and its products” – Don Norman, a cognitive scientist credited with coining the term User Experience in the late 1990s.
To elaborate: UX design is a mix of sociology and cognitive science that looks at how people and products interact. As a scientific process, it can be applied to tangible products like cars, chairs or tables. But in the digital world it simply refers to the way a user interacts with the interface, be it a website, e-commerce store or app.
What does UX Design aim to achieve?
- To improve customer satisfaction;
- To improve the quality of interaction between a company and its consumer;
- To make sure that the product, whether that be a website, app or software program, logically flows from one step to the next;
How would a UX Designer do that?
Glad you asked.
UX Designers are creative and critical thinkers.
For the ease of explanation, let’s suppose our UX designer is currently working on a website for a client. They look at the overall experience and effectiveness of each tool or facet on the company’s website, and then examine if the needs of their users are met.
By understanding consumer behavior and analyzing the consumer’s experience, a UX Designer can effectively create or tweak a website so that is enjoyable and easy to use for the consumer.
Their design principles are derived from cognitive and behavioral analysis, rather than aesthetic or composition values. This is where a UI Designer comes in, but we will save that for later.
This sounds like the role of a Market Researcher?
Not quite, though they do share a lot of research and analytical techniques with marketers, as well as often filling the role of:
- Project manager
- Information architect
- Program manager
- Content strategist
- Functional analyst
And when you’re not watching, they’re usually doing:
- User research
- Usability testing
- Information architecture
- Interaction design
- UI design
- Visual design
- Development planning
- Experience and content strategy
- Service design and delivery
- Coordination with UI Designer
- Coordination with Web Developer
- Tracking goals and integration
- Analysis and iteration
How do you find a UX Designer?
You’ll often recognize a UX Designer by the shit they say:
“We should show users the ‘Thank You’ page once they have finished signing up.”
“Design is just rectangles in other rectangles, then Helvetica, then profit.”
“Information is cheap. Understanding is expensive”
“We don’t need more ways to wash our clothes. We need faster or quieter ways”
“I have to make high fidelity mockups for a client”
“How would this interaction go if I was talking to a real person?”
“Why would you do that to information?”
“Driving users to close the browser is a design pattern”
If you hear these phrases, you’re talking to a UX Designer.
- A UX Designer is not a graphic designer or web coder.
- A UX Designer’s role is to look at a website and analyze how a customer will use it and feel about it.
- They will ask, “How can I make this easier for them to use?” or “How can I make the user’s experience on this website more enjoyable?”
- A UX Designer asks these questions so that a customer leaves the website happy and satisfied. This creates customer loyalty.
- Happy loyal customers = happy business.
Talk to a UX Designer here.
Look and Feel and Feel
Jason Fried makes a great point in his latest post Look and Feel and Feel.
Designers often talk about the look and feel of a product, an app, an object, etc. These are good concepts to be talking about, but how the thing feels isn’t really the important feel. The important feel is how it makes you feel.
Jason makes the point that Instagram makes him happy whereas Twitter makes him feel anxious, unhappy and uncomfortable.
I can see his point and agree. Twitter is more of a rage-outlet whereas Instagram is much more personal and “warm” even though I’m not only following friends but also celebrities, people I don’t know and even brands. They all make me feel warm and nice (@thefatjewish occasionally being the exception I guess).
Facebook just makes me feel exhausted.
“It’s not the buttons, it’s not the animations, it’s not the interface or visual design. It’s not the colors, it’s not the font, it’s not the transitions. It’s how using the apps make me feel before, during, and after”
Great user experience
There’s a great post over at boagworld called User Experience Design is not what you think. I was particularly fascinated by the following:
If you need to call Barclays you can do so via the app. This allows you to skip the authentication over the phone because you did that when you logged into the app.
I have honestly no idea how this is done technically but it’s inspiring to think about the amount of technical work that have been done behind the scenes to be able to create something as “shallow” as not having the say your pin code when you dial in. It really goes to show that it’s the small things that create an amazing experience. Well done Barclays for investing the time in creating a great seamless user experience.
Naming your icons
I think good design is intuitive but should also involve a certain degree of exploration (unless it’s.. say an ATM machine in which case exploration is not necessarily appreciated by the user). There’s a growing trend amongst designers though to use icons that are extremely hard to understand with the sole excuse that the use will eventually learn their meaning.
Joshua Porter makes a great case for labeling your icons in Labels always win.
However, I think labels should be kept around in almost all cases as they turn guesses into clear decisions. Nothing says “manage” like “manage”. In other words, in the battle of clarity between icons and labels, labels always win.
Golden Krishna on our job as designers
I believe our job as designers is to give you what you need as quickly and as elegantly as we can. Our job as designers is to take you away from technology. Our job as designers is to make you smile. To make a profit by providing you something that enhances your life in the most seamless and wonderful way possible.
Love this quote from Golden Krishna in his new book The best interface is no interface. If you haven’t read the book, I strongly advice you to (even if you’re not a UX-designer). Get an idea of it’s content by watching his talk from last year’s The Conference.