Sunday, August 16, 2009

Recent Consulting Links

A few articles on consulting in the current economic climate, thanks to the Freelancers Union newsletter:

The Freelancers' Guide to Getting Paid On Time, or getting paid at all, from the Wall Street Journal. Some good advice in here, especially "deal directly with payroll" to avoid touchy discussions with your primary client; and advice on how to approach a suit if you need to go to small claims court.

For the Self-Employed, It's An Endless Work-Week, another one from the WSJ, this one about how difficult it is to go on vacation or take time off when you're constantly worrying about the next gig. While I don't personally have this problem, I will work on a vacation if an exec requires it, it turns out. So will a lot of other consultants out there, especially as the competition increases (more layoffs mean more freelancers, at least short term).

Now Hiring: Contract Workers? From Business Week, argues that employers are looking for non-perm employees now, and it means business for consultants. "In a recession, contract workers are often the first to go. But often, they're the first to be hired back, because in an uncertain environment, employers want to be flexible." This matches my observation of how the past 6-8 months has gone. The article notes that cutting of contract workers has slowed, and that contract workers are being hired back, but at lower pay than previously.

My own rates were cut by a long-term client a few months ago -- and my health insurance has gone up $100/month in the past year. My work expenses haven't dropped any, either.


Monday, January 26, 2009

Why Consulting Might Be For You

Last week Greg Raiz and I did a half day version of our workshop on being a design consultant, which we call "Getting Started in Consulting: Being the Best Boss You Ever Had." In this economic climate, I wasn't entirely sure we should be recommending striking out on your own, but there are still some themes that work whatever the current job market.
  • Vacation Days: I don't believe in the American corporate two weeks off per year. Between family commitments and personal days for home emergencies, we are left with almost no time to recover from working hard here in the US. Beside comparable countries, we have the least vacation time of any of them. I know plenty of consultants who never take real time off, because they're too nervous to have down time between jobs; but I think they're not being good bosses for themselves when they live like this. (They would agree.)
  • Skills Development: Employers often talk a lot about skill development, but it's certainly secondary to the job that needs to be done now, or the job an employee was hired to do. Long term, I don't think it pays to stay in one company in the same role. Especially as an interaction designer. The resume looks best with a lot of types of design, lots of products on different platforms, and up-to-date technical skills. Now, as a consultant, one still has to pay for classes or software or take time off to do training -- but it's part of being a good boss for yourself to realize how critical it is to stay up-to-date.
  • Software Purchases: I can't tell you how many employers have quibbled about software I needed to do my job efficiently. Perhaps it's because I'm often doing both statistical work and design work, and that means a bunch of tools, many of which aren't cheap. If you're working for yourself, you don't have any arguments about tools that are necessary, and you're even more motivated to learn to use them well after paying for them.
  • Conferences: Somewhat related to skills development, going to conferences to keep up on hot topics, and just as importantly to network for future work, is a requirement for a consultant. It's not cheap, but with clever planning, it can be combined with vacation time for a less expensive trip. A good small business accountant will yell at a consultant for taking vacations that are not part of work trips.
  • Freedom to Fire Your Client: While you can definitely fire your employer by quitting if you're an employee, your level of freedom to move on from bad work situations will feel much greater if you're a consultant. In interaction design, the level of client and company understanding of what good design means and what processes allow it to happen varies tremendously. One colleague at a Big Name company I interviewed with told me, "The people who don't do well here are the consultants who expect everyone to just want good design, and to want to hear what they have to say." I laughed - I've been in her shoes at companies like that as an ignored employee, and why go back to a bad environment? I'm not sure why she's there, either.
  • Setting Your Own Goals: If you work for yourself, you are forced to do a much more frequent reset on what it is you want to be doing. You have to reinvent yourself more often, and that means checking in on your level of job satisfaction and on what you're interested in learning and doing. I think this is healthy, but some people really just want to pay the bills and aren't interested in introspection, which can be frightening.
  • Staying Fresh:Less obvious than working in multiple design domains, creative types need to re-charge by switching problems around. If you're cranking out specs for the same old stuff year in and year out, you're probably losing your design edge. You have a job, not a career. Do you want a career with legs?
There are good reasons to be in permanent jobs, especially now, but if you're interested in more freedom and constant career growth, consulting might be right for you. It's worth remembering that even if you work as an employee, you're still in control of your career long-term. Don't stick with something miserable just because you've been there a long time. And I'm not saying a good permanent job isn't a wonderful thing too: long-term relationships with a good company cannot be replaced, like family or old college friends.


Sunday, July 20, 2008

Designing the Stop Sign (the Agency Experience)

Having just given a workshop on setting yourself up as a consultant with some warnings about client types, this video is especially apropos. What if a corporation asked you to design a stop sign?

In the list of client types, I think they missed the Appreciative Hands-On Committee of Passive Aggressive Cheerleaders client. Who test your design on their 6 year olds!

Thanks for the timely pointer to Steve at Tingilinde...

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Sunday, June 01, 2008

Consulting References (How-To and Advice)

Having just finished a talk at the Boston MiniUPA conference on setting up as a consultant (an honest tell-all), I have collected a handful of references I wanted to share here. They're not necessarily the obvious books/links on consulting, but they informed me in one way or another. Finally, I've put my own slides up: "So You're Thinking About Consulting?" (pdf). They won't necessarily make full sense without the talking parts, but I'll be running a half-day workshop on how to get started in consulting co-taught with Greg Raiz of Raizlabs this summer. Stay tuned!


Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Mini-UPA conference in Boston

Boston's mini-Usability conference is coming up on May 28 at Bentley. This is a reasonably priced one-day event that attracts quite a local crowd, and not a few non-locals. I had a good time at this last year, when I was a speaker on online community design. This year I am speaking about life as a consultant, and mistakes I made in my first year. Here's my abstract:
One year ago, I quit my job and started consulting full-time, after 10 years of industrial wage slavery. I was financially successful in this year, but made a lot of mistakes. I managed to fall into bad headhunter relationships, make mistakes in my accounting that required a 101 class to fix, became thoroughly confused about whether to be incorporated or not, and generally made a lot of newbie mistakes with a handful of clients ranging from garage startups to established software firms. Other local consultants gave me advice and I learned from my mistakes. I can tell you how I did it and what I could have done better; and how it compares to what other local consultants say. I will cover:
  • Your use of the internet to advertise yourself (search engine optimization, job sites, Linked In, blogs, etc.)
  • Portfolio work
  • Branding (logo, name, etc.)
  • Proposals
  • What to charge (the many factors and equations; plus: "they're charging WHAT and someone is really paying it??")
  • Headhunters and job offer pressures
  • Basic accounting and expenses to track
  • ... And other things I learned the very, very hard way, like the portable office equipment it might be nice to own because the client site is a cave with rocks to sit on.
You'll get a handout with the Top 10 Most Important Consulting Considerations in case you too want to do this!

BIO:Lynn Cherny has a Ph.D. from Stanford that she hasn't used in years, except for some statistical skills. She has 12 years of experience working at and/or managing interface design at companies including TiVo, Excite, Adobe, The MathWorks, and AT&T Labs. Her current consulting identity is Ghostweather Research & Design, LLC. She can be reached at

There are interesting names on the list of speakers, including Jared Spool and Chauncey Wilson, Beth Loring and Joe Dumas, plus a host of other local employers. The talks range from research methods to design case studies, with a bit of business thrown in (thankfully, for some of us!). It's even multi-track, reflecting how many submissions they get. And their cocktail hour is fun and well-stocked.

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Sunday, January 06, 2008

2007 in Review

One year ago this week, I quit my job and (after a bit of interviewing and thought) decided to consult for a while. It's been a good year! Some of the things I'm pleased with:
  • Five excellent clients, and a couple of potentials I had to turn down because I was booked. Two web consumer startups, and one long-term established software company, whom I am still working with.
  • Several opportunities to work on data mining: web log analysis, survey cluster analyses, and quantitative personas. Very interesting work! (I also took 2 classes from to hone my skills.)
  • A couple of web projects for which I provided the interaction design and project management actually launched in the same year, including the extremely successul NASA Tech Briefs Create the Future Design Contest site. (Winners will be announced this week!)
  • Two publications by yours truly on the politics and skills of UI design: An article in interactions on the difficulties in practicing design today, and an essay in a new book, HCI Remixed: Reflections on Works that Have Influenced the HCI Community (MIT Press 2008). This book is hot off the press and a fascinating read.
  • Incorporation for my consulting business, Ghostweather Research and Design, LLC. Followed by a crash course in accounting for small businesses. Who knew that credits were negative and debits were positive? And that Quickbooks is still a bit hard to use?
  • I gave a handful of local talks at software companies, local design or usability meetings, etc, on design practices or online communities. Some of them are here on my essays page.
  • Some technical fun: Opportunity to use Flash (so far just on small personal projects), Illustrator, PHP, mySQL, Excel with a database backend.
I did not do as much conference travel as I wanted to, but plan to go to CHI in Florence this spring, to help make up for missing it last year. I hope to see you there!

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Friday, December 28, 2007

Focusing for Self-Portraits

Consultants need to provide photos of themselves that look professional for speaking events and publications from time to time. Blogs and social networking sites also benefit from author photos; and if you're in the online dating game, you need to make your self-portrait a serious piece of work.

Here's a nice list of techniques for getting your portraits focused, if you're the one taking it on timer or otherwise: I'm Ready for My Closeup. I will admit that I hadn't thought of half of these!

As a bonus, if you aren't using your DSLR in manual or advanced modes yet and don't understand some of the terms above, you might read this article from Lifehacker: Master Your DSLR Camera, Manual Mode and More.

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Saturday, December 15, 2007

Designing Your Home Page

Kicking this one off, here's a good article by Joel Spolsky about the design of the product home page for FogBugz, which nicely spotlights the badness of committee decision-making in design. They tried to achieve too many things with too much input, the results frayed, and finally they [he] had to make the tough decision to start over and stick to a single unified vision with fewer "votes" on the matter. You can track this in the mockup screenshots.

Joel also makes a good point about the difference between the company page and the product page in terms of their goals. Nice willingness to go with entirely different styles, as a result. A brave decision!

I've been involved in a few home page design discussions the past year of consulting. They tend to be wicked problems (i.e., ill-defined, messy, and circular). Some of the reasons for this:

  • There may be a difference between who you are and what you do, which may be important and hard to describe. Or hard to recognize.
  • There may be a difference between who you WANT to be and who you are. This is hard to design for, because when you stray from what you are, you tend to confuse people.
  • Conveying who you WANT to be in a clear fashion can only happen if you have a clear idea of who you want to be, and test your methods of conveyance on people to see if it flies. This is different from usability testing as usually understood.
  • A bunch of company stakeholders who disagree on these things (who we are, who we want to be) can't communicate this to a designer very successfully. Design will then take a longer time, with more iterations, and may turn into a committee consensus nightmare.
  • Design directions can be contradictory -- sometimes you can't say two or more complicated things, and you can't do both well enough to succeed at either. Let alone 10!
  • If your business is confusing or going through a change of some kind, it's almost inevitable that the design reflects this, without a very strict control on it. No designer will succeed in clarifying confused input when the underlying problem is actual confusion. The designer may see this going on and be able to point it out, but that won't get it solved. The problems may be too high, too deep, and too wicked themselves. Solving them is much harder than the simple design problem at hand.

One client was working on a new project that was barely outlined in a development spec. He asked me "What do we do for our home page? We're really worried about that." It was premature for this, because most of the business plan didn't exist yet. The design input they REALLY needed was "Your business idea is a little too complicated right now. Can you simplify it first? Here are a bunch of others in your space with successful 3 bullet explanations on their home page. Can you meet that level of simplicity?"

Sadly, most designers aren't in a position to spur you to clean up your entire business plan. Or to make it clear that this might be needed because it's hard to make it sound simple when it's not. (At least, without lying.)

I think design is a strategic activity - requiring hard, brave, high level decisions in order to direct the minds and hearts of customers; and a creating a good business plan is therefore partly a design activity. To create a business that is clear and attractive to prospects, and therefore portrayable as such, requires high-level decision making inside a company. If more business leaders thought like designers, or more designers were in business roles, the execution of the home page would be a lot simpler.

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Sunday, August 12, 2007

Dream Jobs and the Test Drive

I had a brief exchange with someone about creative burnout recently, moving this post topic to the top (under bras). The fact is, sometimes burnout is more serious than just a temporary task malaise and means you should think hard about what you're doing for a living, not just the current task or current boss.

BUT: Sometimes the current job is just the current job, so don't over-react, either. I've seen 3 people have a bad time from either overwork (dotcom era) or bad roles (at a good company) and change careers very dramatically. One opened a record store in Seattle, and 2 became chefs. I'm not saying they were bad decisions, except maybe the record store; but sometimes you need to try out another company first.

Or, you need to try out the job you think you want, and see if it's really better. That's the service provided by this interesting company, Vocation Vacation. That bookmark goes to the photographers' page, which I occasionally stare at.

The idea is that you go on a vacation where you work with someone in the career who acts as a mentor and shows you the ropes. It's like an internship, only shorter, and probably for older folks like me. If you saw the movie "In Her Shoes," there's a great career switch in there, from high-powered stressed lawyer to something much more fun, along these lines:

Dog Day Care Owner.Do you sit in your office and wonder what Rover is doing at home? If you dream of your life going to the dogs, then this VocationVacations® holiday is for you! Dog Daycare owner Heather Stass would love to share her passion as Top Dog at K9 Capers Doggy Daycare.

Heather has extensive experience working with animals. She has a Bachelor’s degree in animal behavior and multiple years of kennel management experience. As a Dog Daycare owner she belongs to the North American Dog Daycare Association and the American Kennel Association’s Dog Daycare Division. She has owned K9 Capers for four years. more...

Before you completely ditch your job and current career, try out a new one and see if it's really that much more fun. Or, in another bold move, do two at once for a while. That's how one of my friends did it -- she sleep walked through her old bad job (remember, virtually no one gets fired for not doing much) and started up her new career after hours and on weekends, till she was ready to quit the first one.

If you're self-employed, having two jobs at once, either two clients, or two different professions, is another way to stay energized. You always have a backup and an escape from what you have to do Right Now.

Finally, if you're thinking about changing jobs, here's another kick-in-the-pants if you still need it: The Right Career is Yours for the Taking.

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Sunday, April 29, 2007

Workaholics in Consulting and Engineering

Really more about type-A personalities, or at least very driven people: An article in Fast Company on Boston Consulting group trying to get a grip on employees who work too many hours.
"A hero at BCG is not someone whose light is on at 10 at night," says Kermit King, the firm's head of recruiting for the Americas. "The emphasis should be on productivity per hour, and I think there's a point where productivity diminishes."

That's why the firm--which doesn't bill by the hour and explicitly states that hours don't figure in promotions--launched a program called the Red Zone three years ago to spot and tame chronic overworkers.

It's not quite working yet -- perhaps because the workload makes it impossible to succeed within the green zone. They have had a slight decrease in the percentage of employees who say their load is not manageable, though, up to 63% from 67%. (At one place I was salaried, 100% in my department said it was unmanageable. The hours we worked reflected this of course, which is one reason I charge by the hour now.)

A related post appears in the increasingly interesting 37signals blog, on development type A's: Don't Be a Hero. Their gist is that if you haven't finished a task in estimated time allowed, don't push on to do it in more time:

That’s where the concept of sunk cost gives us a guide on what to do. It doesn’t matter what you’ve already spent. That time and money is gone. It only matters whether spending what’s left is worth it or not. Business school 101, but one of the hardest lessons to internalize.
Unfortunately, the switching cost is often high for creatives and execution-driven folks. In morale if not attention to task measures. But in general I think their point is very good.

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

12 Breeds of Client

Freelance Switch, a site for freelancers of all types, has a nice post about different types of client personalities and how to handle them. It's applicable whether you're a genuine freelancer or working in a consultative role inside a large organization -- I recognized a lot of it from traditional dealings with consumers of interface design and usability, including previous managers. Some of my favorites, in the "recognizable but not so nice" category:
  • The Hands-On Client: The hands-on client is a frustrated artist, as soon as they walk in the door they will be telling you about their skill as an artist, illustrator, photographer or writer. The hands-on client already has a very specific idea about what they want and usually has very little interest in your thoughts on the matter.... If you feel you have an ethical responsibility to point out the flaws in your hands-on client’s directions, you are headed for conflict. Hands-on client’s secretly believe that they could do their job much better than you and that there is little or no specialist knowledge you could possibly impart. One oddity about working with a hands-on client sometimes occurs when you give in your creative ambitions and agree to do it their way. All of a sudden your hands-on client may accuse you of making them do all the work or not doing your job.
  • The I’ll-Know-It -When-I-See-It Client: The I’ll-Know-It-When-I-See-It client shares much in common with the uninterested client except in a more frustrating way. Their indecisiveness and inability to articulate what they are after makes them one of the few clients that it is generally best to steer clear of.
  • The Always-Urgent Client: All their emails are ‘highest priority’ and their couriers are always red-hot. They work on weekends and late into the night and think that everyone else does too. Additionally the always-urgent client often seems to think they are your only client and that their job should therefore be your highest priority as well as theirs.
  • The Decision-By-Committee Client: Usually inhabiting the world of large corporate clients, the decision-by-committee client can still be found in smaller operations where they share their decision making with a spouse, neighbour or dog. The decision-by-committee client is one who lacks a single point of authority and for which every decision must be approved by many people.
I'm breaking in a new tag for this one, a consulting tag.

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