Practitioner / Consultant / Founder

Those who know me primarily see me as a UX “guy” and while this is true, albeit over simplified, there’s always more than meets the eye.  In addition to my direct project work as a UX “guy” [more nuanced as: business analyst, user research, UX strategist, information architect, interaction designer, brand analyst, creative director, visual designer and quasi front end developer],  I am a consultant, a business partner, people manager, account manager, marketing director, sales manager, project manager, and business owner.

There are meta recursively introspective discussions about the skills mix and role titles in design of a UX team…  Cory Lebson‘s UX Career’s Handbook starts to paint the picture of diversity and stratification in the practice.  In 18 years in the field, I’ve been fortunate to build competency across the broad spectrum and deepen my practice within some core disciplines.

On the topic of Designing Design Teams, Martin Ringlein really get’s to the point of how to achieve maximum output and happiness while avoiding burnout and turn over.  It’s better in person, but you can watch Marty deliver the goods at Refresh Boston back in 2013.  For those who don’t know Marty, he’s an amazingly talented multi-prenure who demonstrates a hardcore value in user centered design, processes, services and products.

The Art of Consulting

I know, there are a lot of stereo-types out there, and when people think consultants they immediately strip the UX “guy” image and dress it up with a suit and laptop…  maybe some gesticulating at a whiteboard.  But to put it in more real terms a Limina UX consultant isn’t any different than UX “guy” – it’s the process we follow that drives the distinction.

In 1998, I was hired as an associate UX consultant at Cambridge Technology Partners (CTP).  CTP was known for it’s aggressive Rapid Application Development (RAD) which straddled the bridge of management consulting and systems integration.  To achieve this, all new hires went to a week long boot-camp out of their Cambridge, MA headquarters where we were torn-down and built back up through Tuckman’sStorming-Norming-Forming-Performing development.  Through this process we were indoctrinated into the CTP method of engagement management: requirements gathering, definition, design, development.

We learned the importance in valuing contributions from all team members, how to recognize, organize, and galvanize team leadership and support based on individual strengths against the collective goal.  One of the most important aspects that I carry with me to this day is that the client is the expert in their domain, and I am the expert in mine, but only through true partnership can we support each other to a successful outcome.  This means listening, understanding and validating before moving.

Blended Approach

I don’t believe that one can practice UX design without firm consulting underpinnings.  By nature, UX practitioners gather, synthesize, validate and deliver in a formal dynamic of unstated: you know your domain, and I know UX.  Having said that, consulting is definitely an art form that can shift the relationship from “I need a UX guy.” to “Can I hire you as our director of UX?”.  I encourage all UX practitioners, particularly those just starting out and those who feel their development has plateaued to find some good consulting reference guides and put them to practice.

But I didn’t start this article to talk about that.  I just wanted to give some perspective that the UX professional (practitioner/consultant) is already a taxing and overwhelming set of skills and responsibility.  Which is what brings me to my point.

Walking into Mordor

We joke about the “one does not simply…” meme these days, but the truth of Entrepreneurship is that it should be considered an equally daunting to the task of walking into Mordor.  As crazy as it sounds, there is an incredible amount of thrash and carnage in the arena of entrepreneurship.  The 90% of the most well intended,  greatest ideas, the most passionate founders, the most determined, and technically skilled still fall victim to sometimes tragic failure in the first year getting a business up and running.  Beyond that 50% will make it through the first 5 years.  In the annals of untold amazing business startups, 1 in 10 is just incredibly difficult odds…  okay maybe not walking into Mordor odds, but tough odds none the less.

The idea, passion and commitment are only the surface level requirements for entrepreneurship.  They’re important, don’t get me wrong, but these qualities alone will not get your across the finish line.  I can tell you from personal experience with 13 years open for business at Limina, we’ve seen our fair share of learning how unprepared you can be to succeed regardless of heart, mind, and commitment.  If you couple this with being a service based business like running a UX Studio, the odds are even worse.

Selling the Intangible

Services by nature are “intangible” harder to see and even more challenging to sell.  The buyer knows (or sometimes doesn’t know) what their need or pain is, but they have no idea (when it comes to UX) how to begin establishing a framework of cost/value.  As such, you have to – just out of the gates assume 15% loss in the cost of sales.  We spend a considerable amount of time educating our clients on the roles, processes, activities, deliverables of the user centered design.  We lay it out in terms of utilization and resource costing, but it’s not the only approach.

If you know the market you can run a value based pricing business.  Another very talented entrepreneur Micheal Aleo of Nav.co runs an amazing Design Thinking agency that can deliver all the value of the best design agencies.  Micheal often speaks out on value based pricing: notion that value will be set  on the anticipated “X” ROI on the final product.   The point is, there are a variety of approaches… and the bottom line is whether or not you can make a margin on your resources or run the risk of failure – all while delivering (meeting/exceeding) the value to your clients in return.

Bumps – Both Good and Bad

Many things can happen to you in the journey of running a business.  In my case, the dot-com-bust was ground zero for launching Limina.  We got quickly out of web brochure/ecommerce and were fortunate to land in Life-Sciences, Bio-Informatics, Pharma LIMs and Knowledge Management systems…  which lead to business intelligence dashboards and business process management systems.  I know, not the mass consumer sexy apps that pulled us out of the tech-bust of early 2000’s, but for us – this was an awesome opportunity to nerd out in all out UX geekiness to communities of engineering driven business.  So we got lucky… for a time.

After a short run in bio-tech, the big game of mergers and acquisitions turned all of our contracts up on end.   This was followed relatively closely by the Sub-prime market crash,  which I’m sure crushed many small businesses. That is, unless you were doing any federal contracting.

Around the time the markets were dropping and people were experiencing devastating job losses – the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 drove federal spending to the point where it seemed the economic downturn had little to no impact.  Washington, DC even in the midst of historic numbers in foreclosures, was going through a boom.

With this backdrop – our team was brought in to conduct an expert UX evaluation of Business.gov and SBA.gov in preparation to merge the two into a single Drupal powered SBA.gov.  Our success on analysis and technical memo lead to a sub-contract on the redesign effort and our eventual 8(a) certification.  From here things have looked up, we’ve had successful Federal contracts and partnerships along the way.  With special thanks to psuedo-mentor Rock Creek Strategic Marketing, now Chief.  Who invited us into user research and UX evaluation work with the Department of Labor.

We’ve also had some not-so-fortunate business relationships along the way – to remain unnamed.

Cutting to the Chase

  • You’re going to take blows – some are really going to hurt
  • People and relationships can, and at times will,  suffer
  • Circumstances will at times seem stacked against you
  • You will be faced with extremely difficult decisions – where sometimes the right ones never felt so wrong
  • You can’t do it alone
  • You’ve never been so forced to look at everything about yourself and ask hard questions

This list goes on and on…  but keeping an already terribly long read short…  there are things you can do to prepare.  Know that you’re going to be everything at one point from marketing, sales, delivery, designer, developer, manager, owner and chief bottle washer all at once.  But there is a science to how you establish a framework for how these roles work and then how you back fill them with people better, smarter and more talented than you.

Resources that Help

  • The eMyth Revisited – I can’t stress enough how much this little, but powerful book transformed my thinking.
  • How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk – it’s a parenting book, but it works in the business context… you’ll have to just trust me.
  • The Courageous Follower – sounds anti-thetical, but the rationalle is sound and will transform you into leadership (see my Leading by StoryListening post)
  • 16 Personalities – this is also transformative.  You will understand yourself more objectively and if your team is willing to share and acknowledge – knowing collective strengths and weakness is essential to building something great.  You may feel vulnerable – but the outcome is worth the vulnerability
  • The Power of Now – It might be cliche at the moment, but Eckhart Tolle nails the problem at the root of our humanity – and by better understanding how this impacts you, you’ll know more clearly how to set tracks for a better outcome.

Tangential Tips

  • Increase your network – or as Zvi Band of Contactually once put it to me: “Your Luck Circle”.  The more exposure you have to opportunity to more increased odds of access to successful outcomes.
  • Find inspiration in others – I’ve already mentioned some of my inspirations Martin Ringlein, Mike Aleo… but someone who really sets the bar for me is Peter Corbettof ISL.   It helps to have living breathing examples to model your own success on.  Peter once said (aligning with Zvi) that you should give out as much as you can and you’ll be amazed as how it pays back in spades, and it has.
  • Probably more importantly than anything else I’ve said…  be prepared to fire yourself from MANY responsibilities. You can never be the best candidate for every responsibility in the company – giving up ownership is part of the game and it’s high-octane fuel for success if you are working with a team and you know whereyou succeed and others exceed you.

Closing Thoughts

Running a UX studio, with all its successes and challenges has been the greatest and at times worst part of my life.  Taking a page out of the eMyth Revisited – stop workingFOR your business, and start working ON your business -then you’ll know you’ve rounded the corner.  And most importantly – as others have said before me… if you’re not having fun, then you’re doing it wrong.

I hope some of you who took the time to read this find it helpful.  I haven’t built a dynasty or an empire by any means – but 13 years and standing has some good baggage to rummage for sure.  I’d love to hear back – feel free to drop me comments and share it with a friend or two if you know someone struggling – because the struggle is real.