How do you make money as a digital product designer without opening a UI tool?

Vasil Nedelchev
5
min read
How do you make money as a digital product designer without opening a UI tool?

This is it. UI design is going to die. It will happen this year.

Don’t freak out.

It’s gonna die at least for me anyway.

I’m kind of over it. I’m not so excited any more to do an endless number of boxes with rounded corners.

We can change this job title as much as we want. Call it UX designer, a product designer or whatever the next thing will be. But at the end of the day, you have a pile of screens you need to produce and maintain. And that to me looks like unimportant, boring work at this point.

Don’t get offended, this used to be my favourite part too. So in the past two years, I’ve been looking for what’s next. I’ve scoured the internet, watched, listened and read for hours. Bought a few very expensive courses. I did all that to find the answer to this question …

Can you do digital product design without opening a UI design tool?

Can you call yourself a designer without doing the pretty visual stuff?

Let’s be honest: you can call yourself whatever you want. Kanye West called himself Jesus at one point and lately, he has been saying he works for God.
So there you go. He just gives us all permission to call ourselves whatever we like. Thanks, Kanye!

But can you bring real value to the people you currently work with without using the Rectangle tool? And I don’t mean being an employee in some of the Fortune 500 startups that have positions such as Design Evangelist or something. Maan this post is getting religious!

Can you make a living selling an expertise-driven product design service that is: For first-time founders and seasoned software makers? Could be offered to companies that already have a full-time UX designer? You do it remotely as a solo operator.

Research

1. Findings From My Working Experience

This might not be your reality if you work in a place with a mature startup community. But this is what I’m finding time and time again. Here are some patterns I’ve spotted:

  • They are often first-time software entrepreneurs.
  • There is a lack of missions & vision.
  • They have a primitive business strategy.
  • They don’t have a marketing strategy.
  • They don’t have a process of making software.

Growing software startups…
…don’t have clear measurable goals.
…don’t have analytics or if they do, they are not properly set and used.
…don’t have a user research role.
…don’t have a clearly defined growth strategy.
…don’t have a growth process.

2. Findings from SaaS Communities

My goal here was to find the main challenges and goals of SaaS founders.
I’ve searched for polls that members already conducted and I also did a few of my own. Here are some findings:

The type of software they are doing:

  • Marketing
  • Sales
  • HR

Long-term business goal of their SaaS businesses:

  • Sustainable income
  • Grow it, sell it and start the next venture with the money

Main challenges:

  • Create the right product
  • User acquisition (aka finding new customers)
  • Churn

The most popular analytics tools they use:

  • Google Analytics
  • Hotjar
  • Mixpanel

Places they go to find designers:

  • Behance/Dribbble
  • Asking around in their network
  • UpWork

Possible solutions

Here are a couple of things that could be of value to this market.

Business Design

Business design is an activity that uses design methodologies, a design mindset, and business tools to solve business challenges. It’s the most commonly used practice in bigger design agencies as a complementary discipline. I couldn’t find a solo practitioner. Let me know if you know someone doing this. I would like to speak to them.

Product Strategy

Product strategy is a classic business practice applied to a product. It’s a set of principles that serve as a guide for the company to achieve goals over the long-term. It’s commonly practised in design agencies and in-house product teams as a complementary discipline. I couldn’t find a solo practitioner.

Design Sprint

This is a 4-day fast-paced process for product development, similar to a hackathon. It helps to create a prototype and test it with real users in a few days. It’s commonly practised in design agencies and in-house product teams as a complementary discipline.

There are solo practitioners offering design sprint facilitation or training. So there is a proven market for this. What I’m curious about is whether you can run such a business remotely. I know one guy doing it.

UX Research

This is the process of discovering insights about the industry, the company or the product. It’s commonly practised in design agencies and in-house product teams as a complementary discipline. It can be offered by a solo practitioner. Unfortunately, it’s not as highly valued as the rest of the practices in this list. This sounds a bit absurd but that is my impression. I believe UX research has enormous potential as a standalone offering but just needs better packaging. I might dig into that in the future.

UX Audit

This is a process that produces a document with suggested UX improvements. It’s used for an existing digital product or service and it’s based on best practices and the domain experience of the auditor.

I do this for clients. What I like about it is that it is a short engagement. What I don’t like about it is that the amount of value you can produce for your client is limited. You can do this on your own and make a career out of it or offer it as a low-risk engagement for a first time client.

Conversion Rate Optimisation (CRO)

It’s all in the name, Conversion Rate Optimisation. It’s the process of improving conversions on a website. It’s commonly practised by agencies specialising only in CRO or solo practitioners. The learning curve for this skill is quite steep because it involves data analysis. What is really attractive about CRO is that it has clear results in numbers you can show at the end. This makes it a no-brainer purchase for clients if you can deliver.

Info Products

I mean e-books, courses and everything in between. Essentially, you design a product teaching how to design a product. It’s a bit meta, I know. It’s a bit industry right now. And it is the place where the most money has been spent in the last few years. And there are opportunities there.

Teaching and sharing knowledge is something I like to do. But it also requires a set of skills that could be challenging for an introvert like me. I’m willing to give it a go with this one. What is your biggest challenge right now? Let me know in the comments and I might do something to help you.

Back to the original question: can you make product design without opening a UI tool? And can you make a valuable solo business doing that?

The answer to the first question is yes.
There are consultancies that offer only the research, strategy and UX. Basically, these disciplines are what determine the success of a product. The rest is rounding corners and making soft drop shadows. This could be done by anyone.

Not all digital products have a UI.
There are video, images, audio, text and codes and you don’t need a UI for them. There is a real demand for this kind of educational or entertainment products right now. And you can use your design skills to make one.

Concerning the second question: can you make a valuable solo business?
It’s hard. It’s a very steep learning curve. In fact, it’s almost a perpendicular wall that you need to climb. To do any solo business, you need to know business. And business is not one skill, it’s a multitude of them: Managing time, money, people, relationships, marketing and delivering good service.

And on top of that, if you want your solo business to be expertise-driven, you need to develop an intellectual property (IP). And in the simplest terms, this is developing a unique knowledge or a tool that solves high-value problems that others can’t. And who wants to do that when you have the option to be a well-fed UI/UX designer playing table tennis in your lunch break.

If you have to pick which of the possible solution would you pick? Let me know in the comments.

Resources

Sam Ovens — Consulting Accelerator
This is one of the most expensive courses I took last year that was worth it. It’s super in-depth about how to create a consulting business. There is nothing about design in this one. It’s all about business. I have to say that Sam is a maniac, the kind I can appreciate. There are some annoying details in his content like the repetition and weird analogies. But overall, the amount of practical stuff in his course far exceeds the faults.
If you decide to give it a go use this link to get $500 off. If the price makes you cringe, check his YouTube videos.

Philip Morgan
Philip is a consultant who helps dev shops specialize and charge more for their expertise instead of selling their time. I have to say that he was my original inspiration for charging for expertise instead of pixels I make.
His book, Positioning Manual, is full of practical advice that applies to designers as well. And it is a great resource if you struggle to find clients or pick a niche.

Alen Faljic — Beyond Users
Alen is a business designer, ex-IDEO business designer. He teaches business to help you be a better designer. He has a course and a super informative podcast if you like to understand business.

AJ&Smart — Design Sprint Masterclass
This is another course that I took last year. It was probably the most practical one for a UX designer. Learn how top tech startups do product development. Even if you don’t see an opportunity to run design sprints, most of the knowledge could be applied to your day-to-day design work.
Important note: Design Sprint is not a process that facilitates the entire product design process from start to finish. It’s a process to use at the start of a new project or when you have a big business or growth challenge you need to tackle. They have an awesome YouTube channel as well.

Conversion XL
This is the best resource so far for CRO and data-driven design that I could find. They are an agency and have a bunch of online courses covering a lot about marketing but also data-driven design. They have as well a lot of free content on their site if you are into this kind of stuff.

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