10 Questions with Debbie Levitt

Debbie Levitt, CEO of Ptype UX & Product Design Agency, has been a UX strategist, designer, and trainer since the 1990s. As a “serial contractor” who lived in the Bay Area for most of this decade, Debbie has influenced interfaces at Sony, Wells Fargo, Constant Contact, Macys.com, Oracle, and a variety of Silicon Valley startups. Clients have given her the nickname, “Mary Poppins,” because she flies in, improves everything she can, sings a few songs, and flies away to her next adventure.

Debbie is a speaker and trainer who has presented at conferences including eBay’s Developer Conference, PayPal’s Developer Conference, UXPA, and WeAreDevelopers. She is an O’Reilly published author and one of few instructors on the planet recommended by Axure. Her newest training program is DevOps ICU, which teaches non-UX roles how to measurably improve DevOps results by correctly integrating UX practitioners and processes. Outside of UX work, and sometimes during UX work, Debbie enjoys singing symphonic prog goth metal, opera, and New Wave. She’s now a Digital Nomad splitting her time between the USA and rural Italy.

T: What are you currently working on?

D:  Writing and speaking about how DevOps results and Agile software dev can be measurably improved when UX specialists and expert product designers are *correctly* integrated into processes.

T: That sounds extremely useful. How about outside of work? 

D:  I am also a singer (with a degree in music). I have an awesome vocal booth in my house. I am plotting, planning, and rehearsing a big vocal audition demo. And super in love with my 5 wacky dogs, @canettiperfetti on Instagram.

T: They look supercute! I have an account for my pets as well. Anything else you'd like readers to know before we jump into freelancing?

D:  I think they know all my secrets now!

T:  Great! Tell us, what drove you to freelancing?

D: In 1995, I started my own web design agency. As a non-artist, I was the UX side and I hired a local guy who was an artist and did CGI scripts (remember those?!). So I was already a freelancer or mini agency, and I have been ever since. I've taken some contract jobs and tried a couple of full time jobs. But even during those, I still did freelance/my own agency work on the side.

T: What was your biggest obstacle when you were starting out?

D: Same obstacle as today, finding clients. When I started out, everybody thought if they had FrontPage, they were a web designer. There was a lot of cheap competition and I had to keep redefining myself and finding niches in which I could specialise. The same is true today though now it's most visual designers are sure they are as good at UX as I am, and companies give them the job so they only have to hire one person (even if that artist ends up not being that good with UX).

T: What is for you the main advantage of Freelancing?

D: For me, it allows me to live my life the way I want to. I can travel and work from wherever I am. I'm that weirdo who buys unlimited internet on cruise vacations and does work. I can work anywhere I have electricity and good WiFi, which opens a lot of possibilities on where I can live or travel.
T: How about main disadvantage? 
D: For me, the main disadvantage has been the uncertainty of where is the next project coming from. I overcome that with confidence and knowing it always appears! You also have to watch patterns and know when there are times of year that you might not get work. For example, some years, it's hard for me to find projects in November and December. I have to have enough in savings to make it through in case it's "one of those years."
T: What is your approach to finding clients?
D: For 24 years, my approach has been that they mostly find me. I know that's odd and hard for others to reproduce. I try to have a great website. I pack my LinkedIn with relevant keywords. I make friends with good recruiters. I just joined TopTal, so I'm hoping some work will come through there. I try to be visible and known in my industry, especially for some of my niche specialties.
T: What is your advice on calculating rates and determining worth?
D: My advice is start fair to low and keep raising until somebody blinks. When I moved to San Francisco in 2010, I had to redefine myself and start over doing traditional UX in the big city. My first job was so low paid I went into some debt, but I did it to start climbing the ladder. Within 2 years, I was back up to my old rates and wiped out the debt. In San Francisco, most digital agencies are charging $150/hr. So I know I can charge that or less but not more except for some of my super unique stuff like Axure training. Sadly, you're worth what someone will pay but don't be afraid to say no. A recruiter contacted me with a "perfect" job the other day but it was $55/hr. That's great for someone still up and coming but is lower than what I would take. It's OK to say no.
T: As a freelancer, do you feel you sometimes need to compromise to keep the client? Did you ever find yourself in that type of situation?
D: I have rarely done that. I have always felt, even in the 1990s, that you are hiring me for my expertise... you should listen to my advice! My policy is I will tell someone 3 times and if they still want it another way, I will document what they should have done and why but then give them their way. I have a good record with being able to convince people of things.
So would I compromise? Generally not. Can I be flexible and pick my battles? Yes, you have to. Do I break my butt to keep a client? No. I recently disconnected from a client whose reaction to the user testing results was to say that he'll just pick and choose what he likes from the designs I did. He even planned to include things that did poorly in testing because he wanted to move forward already. I told him this isn't UX, he's a data guy and looking for me to increase his sales, he's going with a design I haven't even seen or tested, this isn't UX, let's end the project here.
T:  What’s your no.1 tool you rely on as a freelancer?
D:  I'm going to have to give you two! Axure for flow charts, wireframes, and prototypes. Teamwork for project management including client communications and some of the billing.
T: Based on your experience - if you could go back, what would you do differently?
D:  I only have one regret in all my years. Someone offered me some good money right before the 2008 recession to buy my web design company. I was too proud, thought it was worth more, and said no. I should have said yes, ridden it out with them a few years, and then done what I ended up doing anyway. :) I'd be in the same place as now but with more savings. :)
T: What would be your message to someone thinking about pursuing freelance career?
D: I think freelancing is a great way to go if you are good with time management, communication, and discipline (especially if you're going to work from home). Look in all directions for work. Yes many recruiters stink but some are great... connect with them. Say no to clients who are cheap, wacky, not playing fair, and trying to nickel and dime you. I've seen many times that the less a client wants to pay, the more time they end up wanting. That's one reason why I never quote flat prices... someone always loses and it's usually the freelancer. Bill for hours and be honest. You'll win more work when you bill honestly.
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Tom Kozacinski
Tom Kozacinski
I'm a London based product designer, creative entrepreneur, freelancer and advocate of remote work with over 12 years in the industry. I also have 12 years of experience as a stand-up comedian and I love to share my experience.
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