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Freelance product design consultant: What I do and how much I make

Mikaila Waters, a product design consultant, enhances user experiences for companies. She combines web, mobile, industrial, and graphic design skills with user research. Mikaila is currently redesigning the navigation for Kuvee, a smart wine bottle company, to make features more accessible. Her job requires both hard and soft skills, and offers the excitement of diving into different markets.

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Video transcript

I'm Mikaila Waters. I'm 27. I'm a product design consultant, and I make 120,000 a year. As a product design consultant, I am hired by companies who are interested in enhancing their design experience for their consumers. My role is to study what the product serves for the user and how to enhance that experience to make it easier and more fluid. As a product design consultant, you need to be able to do web design, mobile design, industrial design, and graphic design, and a lot of those require some user research, so going out and talking to consumers about their experience or their workflows and then integrating their answers into your designs. As a graphic designer, you'll do things like create the user interface, so actually designing what someone sees on a product. Web design is more... It envelops a little bit of marketing, being able to put different marketing messages onto a website and understand how someone wants to learn about a product. You need to be able to design a website to answer all of their questions, so that way, they actually want to purchase the product, and they understand what they're purchasing. When you do mobile design, you have to think about quick questions that people are asking and how they want to digest information really easily in small pieces because they're looking at their mobile phones. So it's a lot smaller screen. You need to be able to condense information and even come up with icons or images that they're gonna see to answer questions and then be able to design things like menus, different pages, and where information goes inside of a website or an app. Industrial design is usually physical product design. I don't do too much of that, but it's really cool. It's like everything that you interact with usually an industrial designer has had their hands on in the physical world. It requires some engineering thinking, some material design understandings, so you need to know quite a bit to be an industrial designer. One of the projects I'm currently consulting on is Kuvee. It's a smart wine bottle company. They help consumers find wines that they love and allow them to drink wine by the glass. They have a smart bottle that keeps wine fresh for 30 days and a smart dispenser, which I am designing the interface for, that allows you to rate while you're drinking your wines, get feedback on what the pairing and tasting notes are for the wine, and really envelop yourself in the winery experience. So you learn about where your wine is from, how it was made, and where it was made. One of the major projects I'm working on right now is redesigning their navigation. I first went out with a colleague of mine and interviewed quite a few of their current consumers, people who we think of as super-users who use the product all the time, and through that discussion, we found out that they were asking for a lot of features that the product already has. So that led us to believe that some of the navigation and the menu needed to be redesigned in order to really showcase features that are already available. So a big part of being a product designer is not necessarily coming up with new ideas but also ensuring that people know how to access existing ideas. Kuvee is my first luxury product as a product designer, which means that the entire experience has to feel really personalized and upscale. The consumer needs to feel that when they go to the website, either on their phone or on their computer, and then when they purchase the product, to getting the product, unboxing the product, trying it for the first time, trying the wine for the first time, that entire experience needs to feel cohesive, really clean, really seamless, really effortless so they continue to use the product and then continue to enjoy the wines. So as a product designer, you're responsible for making sure that all of the interfaces line up, all of the graphics line up, everything looks and feels really rich but also the same. My salary is 120,000 a year. I charge hourly, so I can make a range of salaries annually. Comparatively to others in my field, I would say that I'm in the middle in terms of what I charge. I think you can always go up when you consult on your hourly rates. It just depends on if there are clients available to pay that. Because I work with early-stage companies, I don't necessarily have the luxury of clients with a ton of money backing them. It can depend on if they've raised or not, so it's really up to you when you're consulting who you want to work with. If you're excited about the product and they might not have as much money, it's kind of your own choice whether or not you are deciding to take a cut for a really interesting portfolio piece that could end up providing you with a full-time position at the company. If you're going to take a full-time position, you may end up taking a pay cut for some security versus actually having a little bit more income at the moment but not really the security of knowing if the job is going to continue if you're doing consulting versus a full-time position at a company. As a product design consultant, you need a mixture of both hard and soft skills, soft skills being good communication skills, good time management, the ability to budget to communicate with clients about if a project is going to be on time or if your deadlines are slipping and why. In terms of hard skills, you need to be able to use design programs on your computer to produce mockups for your clients. It also helps if you can understand a little bit of code just so that you understand the limitations of the work that you're doing, and then you can also speak with the engineering team, which a lot of clients appreciate. One of the harder parts is just ensuring that you're able to communicate through drawing or through other channels than just verbally. It takes a wild to be able to turn an idea into something on paper as a skill. That's definitely something I learned in architecture school, so moving from an idea into different iterations, sketching it out, trying it in different versions, building different models of it, and deciding which one's the best. Usually with clients, you present multiple versions so that way they have things to choose from as opposed to just a single solution. What's tough about my job is that it's sometimes unpredictable. Especially as a consultant and working with early-stage companies, you can't really rely on everything working out next week, next month, next year, so you have to be good at planning for the future and making sure that you're saving money just in case the worst case scenario ends up happening. You also want to make sure that you are not pinning all of that responsibility on yourself because in an early-stage company, it's very personal. You are working so hard. Your heart gets put behind all of your work, and so if things don't turn out exactly how you hoped, it feels personal. It feels like you've failed, but it's not just you. What I love most about my job is that I get to take a deep dive into lots of different topics in different markets. So one day you can be learning all about education. One day you could be learning about health care and healthcare policy, and then one day you could be learning about wine. I think it's really interesting to get to know a lot of information really quickly from experts and then try to endorse all of that information into a product for consumers to learn, as well, and to feel like that knowledge is coming across in the design of the product.