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Interview

How to Break Into the World of UX Consulting

Anton Sten

He has taught at Hyper Island and consulted for companies such as IKEA, Spotify, First Principle, and Super Friendly. In this interview, Anton Sten shares his experience from running a UX consultancy business for more than ten years.

Hi Anton, nice to meet you. Let's start with a short background story. How did you get started in design?

Hey Jan! Well, if we go all the way back it started sometime in the mid-90’s. I was involved in the hardcore music scene back then (playing in bands, going to shows, even writing a fanzine). The entire scene was very DYI-focused so if you wanted to publish a fanzine, you needed to know basics of desktop publishing. I made a ton of different mix tapes too that I created custom covers for which ultimately got me into design. Fast forward a couple of years and I attended Hyper Island and studied Digital Media Design back in 2000. I then spent roughly ten years working for agencies and I’ve now run my own consultancy for a bit more than ten years! So here we are! 

As a consultant, what core skills other than UX design do you think is important to develop?

Regardless of what you’re selling (UX, dev, design) - I think the core competency that you need as a consultant is communication skills. I think one of the keys to business success is being able to communicate your offering clearly and being able to communicate with clients in a trusting and respective way. I’ve worked with a ton of freelancers over the years that fail at this - they miss deadlines, they don’t give accurate estimates. Some have even forgotten to invoice me (so I had to remind them)! You can always outsource most of it if it’s not your cup of tea.

"I think it makes sense to have some level of business skills - after all, you’re running a business!"

How do you define sales, and how do you use it in your process for acquiring new clients?

Through trial and error, I’ve found that cold-calling (or even worse, cold-emailing) is very unlikely to lead to sales. Instead, I try to catch up with past clients on a regular basis. I’ve realised that I really don’t enjoy the sales process so I try to make it as informal as possible. The projects I work on are usually medium to large so it’s also unlikely that I’ll just email somehow and they are looking to build out a design system at that very point. I’ve also found that there’s one sales technique that works far better than anything else; word of mouth.

I try to keep all of my clients happy and by keeping in touch with them, they remember my name. It’s important to remember that we are all just humans and humans like to talk to each other. Rather than googling for a UX specialist, it’s far more likely that you’ll ask somehow you trust. If I can get them to drop my name in the hat at that point, 50% of the sales process is already done! It’s far easier to meet ends meet when someone’s asking for something you provide rather than you trying to convince them they need it.

Anton Sten Process Website
Anton explains his process in detail and leverages client testimonials to strengthen his legitimacy.

What do you think differentiate freelance vs. consultant UX designers?

I always try to avoid the term freelance because for some reason, I think it feels temporary. This is a matter of both self-and-public perception. I’ve found that saying, “I’m a freelancer” translates to some as, “I’m struggling and will take whatever shitty work you throw my way.” In other words, it sounds and feels desperate and poor. Instead I try to say that I own my own business or use the term consultant. To me, a consultant is someone who is more specialised and experienced. 

What's your best advice for designers breaking into the world of consulting?

Wow, where to begin! There’s so much to freelancing and consulting that I even wrote a book about it :) I think it’s wise to ease into consulting if you currently have an employment. It will allow you to try things out and see if it’s for you or not. There’s this glorified idea about consulting, working from home in your underwear while earning a ton of cash! The truth is of course, very far from that image. There’s certainly pros and cons with everything and the only way to cope is to find something where the pros outweigh the cons.

For me personally, a mix of projects and the ability to control my own time are the most important things which I value more than a steady pay, colleagues and I guess, status. So transition into consulting and think about what you’re offering!

"The clearer your sales pitch is, the easier it’ll be for clients to understand what you’re selling."

In the end, this will lead to you getting clients that are a better fit for your business. That said, you’re not going to make full-time pay until you go full-time. While I do think it’s a smart move to start small, perhaps doing work on the side before starting your own business, it’s important to remember that you’re not going to make full-time pay until you go full-time. This advice still stands after ten years, unless I work full-time it’s very unlikely I’ll make full-time pay.

If you were starting from scratch, how would you go about getting your first consultant gig?

If I have a network in the business, I would start by throwing my hat in the ring. You’re unlikely to get gigs until people know you’re open for business. For some (myself included!) it can feel awkward and pushy to sell yourself to your network. But I’ve found that there’s ways of doing this so it still feels natural. So many designers launch a shiny portfolio and expect clients to line up. That’s not how it works.

"Whatever way you choose to do it, in one way or another, you’ll still have to market yourself."

If you don’t have a network at all, that would be my first step. Get one! Even if you have a network, it always makes sense to try and grow it. And the beauty of not having a network is that it’s super easy to grow one! Going from zero to one might feel like a huge step but it doesn’t have to be more complicated than reaching out to somehow whose work you respect.

What role does your UX Portfolio website play in your sales process?

The portfolio part is definitely important but more so at the very end of the process. The portfolio gives legitimacy to everything I say (even though unfortunately I can’t show most of the work I’ve done). I’ve found though that my newsletter and blog are really important in the sales process too as they give me a voice. I think especially with UX, it’s extremely hard to decide if a UX designer is skilled or not. UX is so much more of a way of thinking than something that comes across in screenshots (which is why I don’t use Dribbble).

Anton Sten Website
The front page make use of a strong pull headline and a story that captivates the reader.

Where can we go to learn more about you and your work?

My website is antonsten.com and as it happens, it was just recently updated so I’m eager to hear what you guys think! I’m also on Twitter and DM’s are open if you want to ask me anything.