UX strategist Kavitha Krishnan talks about switching to freelance – what it takes to “have the balls” to switch from full-time work to freelance, and back again.

Some people keep their work and hobbies separate. Kavitha Krishnan is not one of those people.

The UX strategist and research consultant breathes UX all day and night. When she’s not working in the traditional sense, she’s attending meetups, co-organizing conferences such as Talk UX and Better By Design, and participating in groups like Ladies that UX, for which she founded the Madison chapter.

She also likes to keep things interesting by working somewhere steady for a few years, then working independently as a freelancer for a few more.

“I’m both proud and happy that I have the balls to switch careers between being a freelancer and a full-time professional,” Kavitha said. “I’ve met some amazing people in my journey, my colleagues and my friends. The relationships that I’ve made, that’s what I’m really proud of.”

Kavitha is a powerhouse of energy and ambition. Her journey into UX started years ago when she and her husband moved to the United States from India to attend college. They decided to stay, first living in Boston and now in Madison, Wisconsin. Kavitha holds not one but three master’s degrees, her latest in Human Factors in Information Design from Bentley University.

You won’t find her breathless though. She thrives off the energy of this work, and it’s why she says UX is the ultimate career for her.

“It’s always different. I’m working with different people all the time,” Kavitha said. “When you work for a company, and I’ve worked for big organizations and startups, different people have different agendas. The engineering team wants the work done within the given timeframe, the marketing team is trying to bring in more customers, they’re trying to make money, they’re trying to meet their financial goals. I feel satisfied that I am the one person at the table who is the voice of the customer. I’m not speaking for myself. I don’t have any personal agenda, I’m here for the users.”

Kavitha Krishnan at Talk UX Boston October 2018
Kavitha Krishnan at Talk UX Boston October 2018.

Working in India, UX was associated with choices users didn’t have

For Kavitha, this ‘voice of the customer’ matters. Having a voice is indicative of having a choice, something she says she didn’t grow up with in India.

“The India that I grew up in, it was not as liberal as it is now and there was simply no UX in India. I was a software engineer. I did work for a multinational company, I worked for a German client and a Japanese airline client, but there was no UX per se. UX becomes very important when you have choices, and we never had choices in India. If you go into an American grocery store, there are hundreds of cereals and you can just pick one. In India that wasn’t true. We simply didn’t have choices.”

The companies she worked for at the time would often bid on international projects, many of which came from American organizations looking to outsource development and design work. As she progressed in her early career from a software engineer to a more senior role, she began helping her manager out with the pitches that would accompany the bids.

“I noticed there was something else you could pitch on, and that’s the UX, the experience. We had these designers on our team who would come up with good colors and graphics, things like that, but they never seemed to be selling the experience part of the software project,” Kavitha said.

“That’s when I started realizing this was missing and that we should do something about it. How do you win when you have to differentiate yourself in a crowded market? I knew I had to do something, but I still did not know exactly what I had to do.”

It was during her second master’s program, a degree in engineering management from Tufts University in Massachusetts, that she was more formally introduced to UX. This shifted her entire career path and she began focusing her work more on user experience design and research. Before her most recent freelancing gig, she worked for two years as a senior user experience strategist at Mattel as part of the company’s American Girl dolls line.

Switching to freelance took some courage, but it’s a necessity for Kavitha.

“I go back to it every couple of years. It just helps me work on multiple projects at the same time and I learn a lot by doing that. I do a mix of design and research projects, and a mixture of long-term and short-term contracts. The biggest advantage is obviously I get to go to the gym whenever I want,” Kavitha laughs.

It also gives her the flexibility to work on passion projects like Talk UX, where it is her role to secure the city and location for the conference each year. The conference takes place in a different city each time, and this year it is returning to Manchester, England where Ladies that UX originated.

Kavitha Krishnan at a UX workshop in Chicago
Kavitha Krishnan at a UX workshop in Chicago

Kavitha’s tips for being a successful freelance UX designer

The freelancing life isn’t for everyone, which makes Kavitha slightly hesitant to offer advice to other UX designers and researchers interested in full-time freelance. However, we talked her into getting the scoop on her own formula for success as a UX freelancer.

1. Recognize when it’s time to make the freelance switch

Since Kavitha rotates between full-time gigs and the freelance life, she asks herself a series of questions to ensure she’s still learning and moving forward. To start, she takes a look at the work she’s done so far and asks herself:

  • Have I learned something?
  • Have I accomplished something that I’m proud of?

“It’s not always possible to do new and exciting things, but I try not to get too comfortable. I think that’s the biggest thing: when we get too complacent, too comfortable doing something, it’s hard for people to move. So I try and make sure that doesn’t happen,” she said.

If you’re feeling stuck in your role, or you’re not moving forward, it might be a sign to consider something new, whether that’s freelancing or another opportunity.

2. Consider if you have the aptitude for the freelance life

If we compare freelance vs. full-time, it will be clear that being a successful freelancer depends heavily on whether you have the aptitude for it, Kavitha says.

“When you are a freelancer, or a contractor, you’re constantly trying to sell yourself and market yourself,” Kavitha said. “You’re checking LinkedIn and Twitter. You have to give talks and workshops at conferences so that you can keep acquiring more clients. It’s hard work.”

Kavitha Krishnan sits on a panel at the Talk UX Conference in Boston, October 2018
Kavitha sits on a panel at the Talk UX Conference in Boston, October 2018

3. Be honest about your relationship building and communication skills

As important as design, research, and technical skills are to UX designers, the most important part of being a successful user experience designer or researcher according to Kavitha is having the right relationships in place, or the ability to build solid working relationships with a variety of people.

“I feel this can either make or break not just your projects, but your career,” Kavitha said. “UX is never independent. We are constantly having to work with different teams. We have too many masters to please, so the only way to be a successful UXer is to have a good relationship, or make a good relationship with your work colleagues.”

She also works to accomplish this by staying engaged in the UX community through organizations such as the UX Professionals Association, attending meetups, and being active in groups such as Ladies that UX.

“I think having people skills is the most important aspect of the UX professional,” Kavitha said. “People need to know how to survive in this collaborative profession.”

4. Plan ahead: Make sure you’re financially sound

A freelance switch is also very much a financial decision that one has to make well before entering the domain.

Freelance work can be unpredictable and volatile, so Kavitha makes sure to be prepared financially. She saves enough money to cover her living expenses for the next fourteen months or so in case she doesn’t get any work. You will need to come up with a magic savings number that works for you.

“It takes a little bit of planning ahead,” Kavitha said. “It is really scary, but I think I just go ahead and try to do it.”

For Kavitha, the risks are worth it.

“There’s a lot of flexibility. I get to pick and choose my projects, my clients, and the freedom it gives me and the learning opportunities it gives me. I always want to understand what my strength is, what my weakness is, and what I want to do and don’t want to do. Sometimes I know what I want to do next, sometimes I know what I shouldn’t do next,” Kavitha said.

As for what Kavitha is up to next?

“I’ve been doing a bunch of research projects and suddenly I really want to do some design work, I want to get my hands dirty. If I get a research project I can say thank you, but no, and then I get to pick another client. That really excites me.”