5 levels

I’ve been a user experience consultant for a few years now and I’ve noticed there are 5 Levels of success for consulting projects.

I’ve outlined the 5 Levels below from the most fundamental to the most advanced. The idea is that the further up the 5 Levels you can push your projects the more successful they will be.

Just remember this is all from the perspective of an external user experience consultant, not an in-house designer.

Level 1. Get paid

The first and most basic level of success is getting paid.

Money might be a blunt measure of success but it’s important for consultants. Unless you are getting paid, specifically getting paid what you agreed (and not taking longer than you planned for), your project is not a even a Level 1 success.

Working for free is not success. Billing for 10 days and working for 30 days is not success. Billing for 10 days and working for 10 days and then failing to chase the invoice is not success.

This is why I love project managers and finance people. They help us stick to the timelines we set and make sure we get paid. And it’s why I hate it when someone declares they will ‘overdeliver’ on a project midway through because someone didn’t plan things or manage scope.

Your project is a Level 1 success when you see the right money in the bank. The skills you need for this are about pitching, planning, managing time and being honest with clients about scope.

Level 2. Make the client happy

It’s perfectly possible to get paid without making your client happy. If you’ve got a strong contract (you should have) you’ll get paid anyway.

But in the long run getting paid by unhappy clients is pretty close to selling snake oil. You won’t get invited back. You’ll need to move on and dupe new clients. And you’ll feel terrible if you have a heart.

Happy clients are essential for success beyond simply making money. They lead to repeat business and spread your reputation.

So your project is a Level 2 success when your client wants to work with you again. The skills you need for this are listening to, collaborating with and empathising with clients.

Level 3. Do yourself proud

Happy clients are not enough though. This is because it’s possible for consultants to make clients happy without doing great work. 

Maybe your involvement pushed them towards a promotion. Perhaps you helped them spend their end of year budget. Sometimes a client may not know enough to tell a success from a failure (that’s why they hired you). Or maybe you just got on with them really well. 

If you want Level 3 success you need to hold yourself to a higher standard about what constitutes a good job.

This is a gut feeling. I’m not going to define what it means as it’s different for everyone. But you know when you’ve done a good job and when you’ve cut corners.

There’s another dimension too. For me, and probably for you, being a consultant isn’t just about the money. This is about how you spend the finite time you have available on this planet. You want to do good work.

Which means your project is a Level 3 success when it stands a chance of going into your own portfolio. The skills you need for this are your design education (however you came by it), the technical and creative skills you’ve honed, and old-fashioned professional integrity.

Level 4. Get it built

Ha! Now we come to the sharp end. It’s relatively easy, given the right conditions and experience, to get paid, make the client happy and feel like you’ve done a good job.

Many consulting projects end at this point.

These projects can make you feel good. You can talk about the great research you did, and the amazing process you went through to get to the final designs. You can present at conferences and blog about it.

But is it a success if nothing happens next? I don’t think so.

When you are an external consultant, getting things built is about way more than research and design. You need to understand your client and their business so you can deliver appropriate work. You might have to take the risk of developing a vision of the future, pitching it to your client’s business, and helping them transform their organisation.

In many ways it’s easier to never build anything. While things stay on the drawing board they can seem like the best ideas ever, whereas putting them in the world runs the risk of personal failure.

However it happens, your project is a Level 4 success when you can point to it out in the wild. The skills you need are about prioritising, co-ordinating, politicking and sometimes inspiring others.

Level 5. Change the world

Finally, the ultimate arbiter. Did your project make a difference? To a company’s bottom line? To somebody’s life? To anything?

After three years of consulting I haven’t changed the world nearly as much as I expected to through user experience design. I can count on one hand the number of projects that have made a truly meaningful impact to people’s lives or a company’s bottom line.

Yet to all intents and purposes I’m a successful consultant. Billed a lot of money. Made loads of clients happy. Done plenty of projects that I’m proud of. Even got a bunch of designs live in the world.

And that’s why these 5 Levels matter. They help me see that many things that look like successes are not successes at all. 

Your project is a Level 5 success when it changes the world in ways that are clearly and unambiguously obvious. The skills you need for this are a combination of everything already mentioned plus, frankly, a healthy dose of luck.

The 5 levels revisited

  • Level 1 - Get Paid
    Indicator: money in the bank for the time spent
    Skills: pitching, planning, managing time and handling scope creep
  • Level 2 - Make Clients Happy
    Indicator: repeat business from clients
    Skills: listening to, collaborating with and empathising with your clients
  • Level 3 - Do Yourself Proud
    Indicator: personal satisfaction with the project
    Skills: design education, technical/creative skills and integrity
  • Level 4 - Get It Built
    Indicator: seeing your designs in the world
    Skills: prioritising, co-ordinating, politicking, inspiring others
  • Level 5 - Change The World
    Indicator: obvious evidence of real change
    Skills: everything listed so far plus a dollop of luck

One more thing. The 5 Levels are cumulative. Your design project can’t get to Level 3 without reaching both Level 1 and Level 2.

This means you can’t feel smug and successful for doing a great job (Level 3) if you didn’t get paid what was agreed (failed Level 1) or if you didn’t make the client happy (failed Level 2).

It means you can’t claim success for getting any old rubbish built (Level 4), because if you know in your heart it’s rubbish then you know you didn’t do a good job (failed Level 3). I love the 'good designers ship’ philosophy but only up to a point. Garbage is still garbage, no matter how quickly you release it.

OK. But so what?

Thinking about the 5 Levels leads to two inescapable conclusions.

First, the foundations of successful projects are consulting skills (not design skills). Planning your work, having tough conversations about scope and listening to your client are critical to success. Unless you can do these it simply doesn’t matter how good your design skills are. And I suspect that many of us in user experience spend too much time on design skills and too little on consulting skills.

Secondly, truly successful projects must change the world. Clients are not paying us hard cash to do interesting stuff for its own sake. Unless you can get stuff built that makes a difference it doesn’t matter how good your design skills are. And, again, I suspect many of us in user experience spend too much time on design skills and too little on working out what skills it really takes to make things happen.

Or put another way. If you are a user experience consultant, the design and research is only half the story. At most.