DonnaM » Blog Archive » On why I gave up consulting

On why I gave up consulting

I’ve told this story in person more than once, but thought it might be good to get it out in writing (if any post is to come back and bite me in a couple of years, this will be it).

As you may know, I left a consulting job last year. I was a usability specialist with a good company who had sufficient client work and a nice team. They paid me well. I was able to write and teach workshops and sometimes to design stuff. Sounds ideal, doesn’t it?

But there came a point in time when I realised it wasn’t for me, or perhaps I wasn’t for it.

I think user experience consulting in Australia is similar to elsewhere. Client asks consulting company to bid for work. Client usually has a budget in mind already. The playing field is fairly level, so consultants compete a lot on price (there are some different skill bases, but for many services there is not much difference). Consultant has to determine up front what they will do (with little knowledge about the real details of the project), how they will do it and when they will do it. Client accepts someone, writes a fixed price or capped price contract. Consultant signs it and starts work.

This model is OK for easy work – straightforward user research, straightforward usability testing, expert reviews. But it doesn’t work for anything more complex than that. The real world doesn’t fit into the neat project proposal that you write. People aren’t available to meet, there is less information available than you expect, the team doesn’t have required skills, the assumptions you made about users are plain wrong. On a project of any complexity, particularly design projects, you can’t learn how complex it is until you really get your teeth into it (and that would take all your allocated time).

So what happens:

  • The consultant ends up doing the easy work because it is possible to define up front, scope and cost
  • The consultant ends up delivering broad, high level work (like the top level hierarchy of a site) because it is impossible to estimate and scope the real work
  • Work is done as one-off chunks, ‘delivered’ to the client and the consultant disappears
  • Clients do the design work and get a consultant to usability test

It’s clear who ends up doing the hard work – the client!

This is all backwards – the client is the person who is least able to do the complex work, which is why they hire out in the first place. Usability testing and user research are dead easy compared to designing the system. Creating top level items is a no-brainer compared to placing all content within a structure, identifying content relationships and creating an IA that sings from top to bottom. Doing an expert review is a piece of cake compared to redesigning and implementing changes as a result.

We know that the best work is done iteratively. Design, test, tweak, design, test, tweak, leap, design, test, tweak. Lots of small improvements, products out earlier, ability to fix things that aren’t quite working. The consulting model just doesn’t allow this. Everything takes forever as the purchase process takes so long and there is no room to design iteratively.

After 18 months I finally had enough. I knew I was doing sub-standard work, skimming the easy stuff and leaving the client to do the hard. I knew the process wasn’t going to change.

Now I’m not saying all consulting is bad. It does suit high level strategic work and discrete activities that are easy to define. It suits clients who have the flexibility to hire well and design well. It also suits clients who have a high level of skill and just need a short term prop to their skill set. But I never worked with any of these, and don’t see many of them around. Maybe my experience was unique.

My solution to this problem was to freelance. For me, that means I work on fewer projects in a year, but I do them more deeply. I hang out with the team instead of in a separate office. I spend as much time mentoring and sharing skills as I do creating designs. I encourage the people I work with to be confident in the skills they have (and understand the ones they don’t).

I produce work that I’m proud of, and that’s the difference.

4 Responses to “On why I gave up consulting”

  1. Meghan Says:

    I know this is an old post but I just found your blog, and couldn’t agree more with what you’ve articulated here. I am going through EXACTLY the same struggle now and almost got a bit teary there that someone else understands the internal struggle ;)

  2. Donna Spencer Says:

    Thanks Meghan – I still agree with myself and have never looked back!

  3. Alan Says:

    Hi Donna,

    Best of luck to you when going freelance. It’s important to enjoy what you’re doing.

    I’m in the process of setting up my own consultancy after completing a PhD in HCI and a few years working in the area afterwards. My question is how do you get a good client list? My previous work involved one-off projects (often collaborations with large organisations) but I’m more interested in small-scale work which makes my previous colleagues no use for further work. I’ve noticed a few websites that aren’t working as well as they should and I wondered if it was worth finding out the department responsible for running the website, contacting them with a few pointers and maybe a brief report, and telling them that I can do good work for them (ie, reduce complaints, increase turnover etc). Would this work?

    All the best,


  4. Donna Spencer Says:

    Alan – I find freelance work mainly through personal contacts. At the beginning I answered a couple of advertisements for short contracts, but haven’t done that for a while.

    I would never to identify something not working and tell someone about it – that just wouldn’t suit me. And I’d be annoyed if I were the client – often clients know there is something wrong but there are things stopping them. But I do know people who have used that approach and had it work – it just wouldn’t suit me. I’d write a polite (and short) email to let them know what you do and that you are available – it won’t hurt and might come just at the right time for someone…

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