Freelance fish

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Nick Disabato is a designer & writer from Chicago. He runs Draft, a small design consultancy that specializes in optimizing online stores. He’s probably most known for writing Cadence & Slang, widely considered the best reference text for interaction design; and Value-Based Design, a new book on how to design for business impact.  

The whole interview is worth listening to. You’ll get some interesting bits on:

  1. How Nick went from doing randoms gigs to becoming an CRO expert for ecommerce websites
  2. Iterating on positioning
  3. Solving an expensive problem with a laser-focused solution
  4. Value Based Design
  5. The importance of business skills as consultant
  6. How consultants and doctors are similar
  7. Solving feast and famine cycle


Positioning and your landing page is a iterative process

For Nick this meant 5 years and one and off rework.

The site needs to focus on answering three things very clearly:

  1. What kind of problem you’re solving,
  2. Who you’re solving it for and
  3. Why are you unique ?

Nick highly recommends checking out Philip Morgan's stuff out for this.

Deliver a laser focus solution to an expensive and difficult problem

There is focus in every word of draft.

People need to go through long and hard crappy process of doing this right.

Focus and clarity takes a lot of conversation with others and a lot of introspection. The stuff you see on is a product of that. A lot of thought and time behind it.

Motivation for productised consulting

Having a durable and sustainable business. Wanting to shift from finding work all the time to having a business where a client pays you a retainer to keep helping them or maintain their business.

For Nick the answer was AB testing as it makes sense as UX designer. And a lot research goes into it.

Create something that gives you authority.

Nick wrote cadence and slang to solve one of his personal itches. This led him to gain authority and develop a name in the industry. Create something that others can use and benefit from.

Designers should learn business. Or for that matter anyone should learn about the basics of business

As a consultant, you're primarily either helping a business

  1. make money or
  2. save money.

Any action you make is moving the company in either one of those directions.

So understanding business really helps you hone your craft to benefit business. If your skillset can't be leveraged to help the company with the above two things, you'll most probably not end up being as useful

Always experiment and with experience, you cultivate an instinct

Anything that is customer facing, will always benefit from experimentation. There is no point in predicting things that are inherently uncertain, you'd rather just put it out there and learn from the response and iterate.

The best way to find out what a customer wants is to just ask them and see how they respond to it. If that is a design change, just deploy it to the front end and see how they respond.

Pretend like you are a doctor and diagnose the problem

If a client comes knocking at the door and asks for a redesign of the front page. Ask why ?
Rather than say this will cost this, ask them what the problem is. Why do you want a redesign ?Where is the pain ? Undertstand the root issue.

They generally want a specific outcome. Ask them "What would a homerun look like for your business ?" and work towards acheiving that outcome for their business

Try and drill into what the problems are.

Use socratic inquiry and a paid pain problem session. You do it until you understand where the pain is actually coming from.

And as a freelancer you may think of this as unpaid and unnecessary. But instead charge the client for a kickoff, ask what the problems are and come with a statement of work where you clearly lay out the problem and how you'll approach diagnosing the problem.

Just like a doctor.

Come up with predicted outcomes and see how it matches once your experimentation is done. With time you cultivate whether or not it’ll work for people.

This type work has value. You are creating an outcome. Not a design. Design any skillset is just a tool.

Understanding how to diagnose a problem and specifically solve them.

On finding clients

Nick still searches for leads.

But I close more leads as a value based designer.

Writing books, doing podcasts, speaking at meet-ups and conferences are good ways to find leads.

A lot of work come from referrals.

How to solve feast and famine cycle ?

Get more retainer clients. So figure out how to give ongoing services / support / help to your clients. A business is constantly growing, so just figure out how you can help businessed grow and how valuable that is to a client.

How to create top notch content ?

Do case studies on all your clients. This helps you not only learn what works and what doesn't work better, it helps you build authority in the space.

One thing Nick could have done differently if he could go back in time?

Would have learned about business sooner.

Books and courses

  1. Personal MBA
  2. Million dollar consulting by Alan Weiss
  3. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward Tufte
  4. The Element of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst
  5. Designing For The Digital Age By Kim Goodwin
  6. About Face by Alan Cooper
  7. Mobile First

One thing you can do to up your game

Ask what the real problems are. People come to you with a problem. Clients don't ever know what the solution is. So really try to understand the root cause by understanding the actual problem.

This is what makes you a consultant. A freelancer does what the client tells them whereas a consultant works towards a business outcome that the client desires.