From UX Designer to UX Consultant: Your Career Roadmap

For many designers, the ideal career path leads to independence. This can mean becoming a freelance designer, a design agency owner, or a UX consultant. Since this role is becoming increasingly popular, I asked practicing UX consultants for practical insight into what it means to be a consultant in the world of UX.

What is a UX consultant?

UX consultants are the creative directors of the UX world. They form and deploy the UX strategy of a product, ensuring that everyone who influences its UX is on the same page.

This role creates cohesion, which results in smoother collaboration and better efficacy. The UX consultant is a senior role, meaning that most UX consultants climbed the UX design career ladder from junior to senior roles before they started consulting.

What’s the difference between a UX designer and a UX consultant?

  • UX designers focus on hands-on design and implementation.
  • UX consultants provide strategic insights and recommendations.

So, a UX designer does practical design tasks, while a UX consultant creates plans and oversees their implementation by the entire UX team.

The 5 distinctive responsibilities of a UX consultant

It’s not surprising that when discussing their responsibilities, each UX consultant I interviewed painted a slightly different picture. That’s because this is a very flexible role regarding the responsibilities that come with it. It’s very obvious that many companies and practitioners create their own definitions of this role. Moreover, in most cases, there’s an overlap between UX consultants, UX designers, and PMs. So, I’ll list only distinctive responsibilities to keep us focused on our topic:

1. Provide a cohesive direction for all UX efforts

UX consultants ensure that all UX initiatives follow a cohesive direction informed by an ongoing stream of qualitative and quantitive data sourced from analytics, user interviews, and user tests. They must process all incoming UX-related information to create or revise long-term plans. Also, they have to ensure that everyone knows and works towards the same direction and goals.

2. Align UX goals with business objectives

Consultants work closely with stakeholders, making sure that UX goals are aligned with broader business objectives. By conducting and processing audits and research, they identify opportunities for improvement and provide recommendations on optimal strategies.

3. Measure UX Effectiveness

In collaboration with stakeholders, UX consultants define measurable metrics for consistent and objective evaluation of UX effectiveness. They create measurement plans to make sure that all the necessary is collected to be accessed and interpreted when necessary. They also use various analytical approaches to derive meaningful insights, and identify patterns, trends, and user pain points. Through this, they build a comprehensive view of the strengths and weaknesses of the product’s UX.

4. Involve and educate all parties

Consultants must plan and facilitate the most efficacious workshops addressing relevant questions and issues. They make sure that everyone feels involved and engages in activities that shape the UX of the product. Also, they have to advocate for UX in the higher ranks of the organization, highlighting its potential and impact on business in an accessible and effective manner.

5. Plan or conduct training

UX consultants have to make sure that all UX professionals working on the product are up to the challenge. Therefore, if necessary, they plan internal training and mentorships catering to individual and team needs.

The path to becoming a UX consultant

Becoming a UX consultant isn’t an overnight process. Everyone I’ve asked started as a junior UX designer on a product or at an agency. They’ve all agreed that this was very important for practical reasons:

  • Unless there’s some nepotism involved, it’s unlikely that a company will hire a UX consultant with 0 real-world experience.
  • Even if you’re the best UX designer in the world, you still need to develop skills like client management, negotiation, and effective communication to successfully transition to consulting.
  • Since, in many cases, UX consulting is a leadership role, you’ll also need leadership skills that can only be acquired in senior positions.
  • If you want to become a successful freelance consultant, you’ll also need entrepreneurial skills and a great network with strong recommendations. Building these takes some time.

With all this mind, there are 2 potential paths you can take:

1. Join a UX consultancy/agency

Many UXers forget that you don’t necessarily have to go independent if you want to become a UX consultant. But even if that’s your end goal, working at a UX consultancy can help you gain all the skills necessary for you to go on your own later down the road. If you join a consultancy in senior roles, it’s highly likely that you’ll have the opportunity to get involved in pitches, presentations, negotiations, and preparing quotes. What’s more, you’ll also strengthen your portfolio.

2. Become a freelance UX consultant

To become a successful freelance consultant, you’ll need

  • Experience,
  • Strong portfolio, and
  • Active network.

Most professionals I’ve interviewed said they started consulting on the side to build these three and keep afloat. Besides these, you’ll also need to make sure that you know how to operate a small business. This includes setting up a business, contracts, taxes, and legal help.

From what I’ve learned, this is the part where most people get scared and back up. If you’re in the same shoes, you should contact a freelancer in your area and ask for their help. If that doesn’t work out, you’ll need to find and pay a business lawyer to sort things out for you. This also means you’ll need some capital in order to start your freelance consulting business.

Mind you, both of these paths assume that you’ve worked as a UX designer or researcher for at least 3-5 years and have these prerequisites:

  • Strong UX design and research skills.
  • Leadership skills and experience.
  • Being a UX generalist (principles, practices, software).
  • Real-world experience.
  • Diverse portfolio of UX projects.

The 3 golden rules of UX consultant portfolios

Like UX designers, consultants also need a portfolio showcasing their experience. In general, the two will be very similar. However, there are a few necessary differences that you should keep in mind while working on your UX consultant portfolio:

1. Highlight the right skills

We’ve established that UX consultants need to have a specific set of skills that differentiate them from UX designers. These include communication skills, workshop facilitation, analytical skills, presentation skills, advocacy, and so on.

When working on your portfolio, you need to make sure that you highlight these skills in your case studies in an organic and effective way. The obvious thing to do is include sections about decision-making, workshops, and stakeholder presentations at the right places. However, you can take it a step further.

In UXfolio, you can easily embed entire presentations, Miro boards, and other interactive elements into your case studies, then write a few sentences about the effects and outcomes. This way, you can make dry information more engaging and memorable.

2. Emphasize data and its effect

UX consultants have to convince stakeholders who are sometimes way too conservative when it comes to UX. In such scenarios, the most potent weapon is data. Therefore, in your portfolio, you should feature data front and center to underline the impact of your way of doing UX.

The most effective way to feature data is before-and-afters: the number before you came on board and the same number after you came on board. This is simple to do, easy to understand, and very high impact.

3. You’ll need 4-6 projects

In a regular UX designer portfolio, you’ll need 3-4 projects max to be safe. However, since UX consulting is the senior role of senior roles, you’ll need at least 4 projects. If you want to specialize in a specific niche (banking, insurance, education, retail, etc.), these projects should be from that niche or at least relating to it. If you want to be a generalist, you’ll need a diverse selection of projects.

4. Recommendations and testimonials

Adding quotes from past clients to your UX consultant portfolio is very important. However, these quotes have to be detailed. A quote like “Work with Mary was smooth” is nice but not very impactful. It’s best if the testimonials contain specific achievements. 

Before finishing a project, you should ask a stakeholder for a recommendation. You should follow up this request with an email that lists some of the things you’ve achieved together on the project to give them direction. If you do this respectfully, you’ll make their job easier, and it’s more likely that you’ll have a great testimonial that you can use in your portfolio.

In UXfolio, you can use the Testimonial carousel section to add separate quotes with names and images. Or, you can build a dedicated testimonial page to collect all of them in one place.

Start building your UX consultant career with UXfolio!

If you’re ready to take the next step, register a free UXfolio account and start building your portfolio! You can use some of the mentioned features and more to build a website that turns visitors into clients. UXfolio offers features that are tailored to UX professionals. This ensures that you don’t get lost in a sea of unnecessary features and you focus on what matters. Try UXfolio!

UX career expert & creative @UXfolio. I've been participating in and writing about UX design for 4 years. In my free time, I read, listen to opera, and work out.

Hit me up at akos@blog.uxfol.io

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A typical mistake I see in UX portfolios is lack of content explaining their contribution to the effort, the images are only the final product and not the process to get there.

UX is very much about strategy and if the person is not showing how they got from A to B, they appear to be another UI trying to move into a UX role.

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