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Good old way of design freelancing should be dead by now

and what can we do, to make it disappear for good

alt tag This article was originally published at Medium on October 08, 2018.

Yes it is that time of the year, tech sites are summarizing what we are leaving behind, writing articles about their expectations for the upcoming year, and I bet you already read several articles about what is dying (or already dead) in the industry we are working in.

Let’s kill something, it is that time of the year

The thing Im trying to bury as we leave this long year is the good old way of design freelancing as we knew it, and as it has been here with us for so long. Been working as a freelance designer for a long time, and saw how the industry changed, user-centered, functional design and mindset started to unfold in our lives and design routine. Designers started to bring in users into the design process, trying to overcome their biases and reduce the gap between designing for themselves and their users.

But unfortunately, the old way of self design is still with us, feeling alive and well. Especially when we are talking about design freelancing. The expression self design is accurately defined by Jared M. Spool . It is a decision making method, when the designer or team makes decisions based on their assumptions, by sticking to a hypothesis on how they think a function or a product should work. As for design freelancing I would also involve the client/ customer and put it next to the designer in the self design circle.

The problem with the good old design freelancing

As I was a freelance designer, still registered to some of the freelancing networks that provides freelancers for companies (mostly for remote contracts), I usually still get project requests from these sites. A couple of weeks ago, I got one, that points out well the overall problem Im trying to describe.

At this project request, a company was looking for a “UI/UX Designer” to work on a food delivery platform. I quickly ran through the description, and 2 things grabbed my attention. The first was the planned duration for the project “2–4 weeks” the other thing was highlighted at the end of the description “we would need a good designer with experience in the food industry”

Let’s try to summarize what these type of project request descriptions tell us about the job itself.

The title “UI/UX designer”, what does it really mean in 2017? I mean I get it, there will not be a separate person or something like an in-house user experience team, working on the project. So does it mean a designer who cares about user experience while doing the work? The one who does not, would we really call a designer? Could this mean a designer who thinks?

The desired 2–4 weeks duration time of the project shows clearly, that what this company might be looking for is not problem solving (which the design process itself is supposed to be), but production only.

The desired 2–4 weeks duration time of the project shows clearly, that what this company might be looking for is not problem solving (which the design process itself is supposed to be), but production only. They are looking for a designer, a prettifier, who will deliver nicely crafted layouts. They may let you create wireframes too (if so), what They, the clients will go through and “validate”. You won’t be able to get any kind of user feedback, only the feedback of the people you’ve been hired by. All the iterations (or review circles) will be based on the „taste” of the client and not on the results of testing.

Your design will always be just as good as your research

This 2 to 4 weeks leaves you no time for user research, or research of any kind, no user interviews, no discovery phase, conducting research to develop an understanding, and sadly as a freelance contractor you already missed the Strategy Phase as well. The only way they will involve you into the project is giving you some kind of brief or a project documentation made by them. The client’s project manager, or the stakeholders at the company will go through the design screens you created, and consider it prototype testing (it is not).

Designing “the agency way”

Overall we might foresee, that you will not be able to bring the user’s perspective into the process, the design you create will miss your deep understanding of the target audience, which is one of the most important aspect of user-centered design.

This also means that unfortunately, you will not have any kind of user validation and testing built into your traditional design process, and you won’t be able to improve your design after delivery, by metrics. I think we can bravely call this way of designing “the agency way” as it is the way how design agencies ran for so long. Creating and re-creating products with zero user insight, leaving projects with ‘Success Theater’ when handling it to their client (and getting paid). Rather than actual success that is measured and tracked after implementing.

Luckily these agencies are changing too, nowadays having their in-house user experience teams, they are not really looking for standalone “rockstar designers, with a blowing fire inspiration and great design instinct” they are rather in need of problem solvers that can create well working, functional design.

By working this old way the outcome will be based mainly on the client’s and a bit on your hypothesis about the product and it’s core functions, which leaves you in the role of the good old “graphic artist” — a pixel-pusher who can create neat layouts, that looks great on Dribbble. Your work will be a checked bullet point (design production) on the list of the overall process that is (most of the time) commanded by waterfall development model.

What kind of experience do you really need to deliver as a designer

The second detail I underlined at the project description above, draws up a bit more about this sinister forecast -“we would need a good designer with experience in the food industry” Let’s try to define, what an experience in the food industry could mean at a designers perspective, because frankly Im not quite sure. I’m a frequent restaurant-goer, already created layouts for some restaurants and hotels back in the days. Does it qualify me for the job or should I be a food engineer or a certified nutritionist instead? Being quite honest, I do not think that you need any kind of “experience in the industry” to do a proper job as a designer.

What you need is to be able to bring the right research methods and techniques of yours, define the right problem, select the right approach, and do a profound research and product validation. Applying the right research methods, by the time you’re done with the process, you will know everything that you need to know about the related industry to do an excellent work.

What you, as a designer can do to make the old way of freelancing disappear

Highlighting the importance of doing a research and a field study you can and will surely get the following answers by any client you meet as a freelance contractor “ We know exactly what we need, we know the industry quite well” or “I know what my users need” Let’s try to convince the client(with ease) that they might provide great service and run a successful business and give you all the insights, but you without doing a research, can not know all the aspects of their users needs and it is your job to find it out.

If you are a bit more lucky, they will probably go with this one: “Never mind, we already did our research, when we started the company, made our plans, etc.” When you get this answer, you might ask your client to handle you the documentation of this research they did (and ask them when they did it). It sure can help you doing yours. But you have to educate if necessary and make your clients understand, that you need to be involved. Your work starts way before you start creating layouts in Sketch, Figma, Photoshop or whichever tool you are using, and should end long after handling these files to them and say goodbye.

Doing your own research and analyzing the outcome is essential for creating a functional, well working design, that will serve them and their users right. Because at the end of the day, you, doing your research is understanding all the aspects of the problem you need to solve, if you want to make the right design decisions and deliver real value in your projects. Results that will last longer than 2–4 weeks . What are your thoughts on user experience and design freelancing?

This article was originally published at Medium on October 08, 2018.

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