Comments on The High Price of Free

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  1. Great bit of exposition, Rachel. I’m a little further along the “years on this earth” path, but everything you say rings quite true, still.

    While the long overdue across-the-board recognition of the value of designing for great user experiences is obviously a great boon to all of us who passionately invest our time and expertise in doing just that—as well as promoting it, evangelizing, speaking, writing, contributing, and so on—at the end of the day we have to make sure that there is bread on the table. All of the above means nothing to my family if we can’t pay the bills. They won’t care that I am a great designer, that people want to hear me talk or read my words, or that my peers think I’m a swell chap with a lot to offer.

    Sometimes it *feels* as if that view is selfish, but without getting too Ayn Rand, a certain degree of selfishness is not only healthy, but necessary. In fact, it is in many way more selfish to keep giving to others instead of giving to my family. I chose/made my family, and they must come first.

    I have never been offered a dime to speak or write about UX. My guess is that there are probably only a few dozen UX folks out there that can truly claim to make any real money by doing such things, at least on a regular basis. Good for them! But for most of us, that’s probably not going to happen. And you know what, that’s okay. I mean, ultimately, a speaking event is not like a product that is going to make the organizers rich over time, so paying speakers who cannot guarantee by name alone that seats will be filled may just be unrealistic.

    Like others, I don’t have much time left in the day after my 9-5 job, my commute, my domestic errands and chores, a pretty healthy night’s sleep, and a tidbit of time with my wife and daughter, for anything else. That smidgen of time is insanely valuable to me, and that means that what I do with it had better prove valuable. In short, if I’m going to be working on something “on the side,” alone or with others, it had better have the potential to pay off, and I don’t mean some teeny tiny chance, either.

    Creating and selling mobile apps seems to be one area where there is a pretty clear path to profit. Sure, you may not be able to retire off it, but even an extra couple hundred bucks each month can be crazily helpful. I did a few myself, and while I don’t currently have any available anymore, I made enough money from them to feel that the time spent was worth it.

    The other way to get paid for on-the-side UX efforts is a little less straightforward, but it can prove even more lucrative. In short, work on things that will impress the type of people that you want to next hire you—in a much better paying role. Don’t work on what tickles the fancy of your peers: they can’t hire you, and they often can’t provide any real influence over those who will be hired above them, so to speak. So, focus on the C-suite folks and their ilk. Write about stuff that is important to them in the area of UX, and publish it in places that they will find it. Start connecting on LinkedIn not with other designers, but with the VPs and Chiefs and design and experience at large companies, putting your work in front of their eyes. They are the people to impress, and should you do just that, the career boost they can provide will be vastly worth it.

    Ultimately, I think you have to find a balance. Yes, it’s great to contribute to our “community,” to put out freebie UI kits, to make cool designs just for Dribbble exposure, to write astonishingly professorial online articles, to toil over a major presentation and wallow in the applause at the end of the show, and to help out other UX people in forums, repositories, and elsewhere. And we should, to a certain extent. It’s what keeps us happy, engaged, and gives us a sense of accomplishment. But we must also contribute to our family—even if that just means ourselves. We must earn a good living, seize opportunities, make sacrifices, and spend time with the people that will open the doors to greater financial reward. Because, at the end of the day, that too provides us a very different and yet even more necessary happiness and sense of accomplishment.

    No design I have ever created has given me a greater sense of self worth and pride than being able to give my daughter the present she wanted, take my wife to an expensive show, or just let them know that we are going to be all right…because I’m a pretty good designer.

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  2. Very interesting article, thank you!

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  3. As a industry of problem solvers, it seem strange that we don’t have a means to sustain the system. A support for the contributors and innovators. Adoption != Income.

    At 26, I’m at the young and hungry stage, where I’m looking to take on as much as I can handle, to advance as quickly as possible.

    I’d love to give back, whether it be with time or resources, and would prefer collaboration over competition. Am intimidated by the barriers to entry into open source; how do you select a nobel project? I don’t have free time: married to a woman with ailments that limit her independence. Spare technical time is spent keeping up to speed with the industry standards.

    Rachel, what are your thoughts for the up-and-coming generation of developers giving back/contributing? Would a Pantheon, or Humble Bundle platform be effective in supporting a series of industry-centric causes?

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  4. Thanks for this, Rachel. Really hit home! Nice to know that others are thinking about this, too.

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  5. I’m less than a handful of years younger than you, and these issues keep me up at night a lot. Far from the entitlements our baby boomer parents received on a plate, I’ve dumbed my life’s goal down to living in a house that has a backyard and central heating by the time I’m 50. Retirement? I had a pension for 7 months in 2004. I’m going to work until the day I drop dead. That’s not down to my lack of initiative. That’s life for our generation. I love what I do and I do what I love. But I can’t plan for thirty, twenty, or ten years in advance. We get through each month and that is all. Sometimes we don’t.

    Yesterday I was working on a post about yet another upcoming e-commerce law we all have to comply with (...sorry Rachel…) and thinking “why am I blogging this for free? Someone should be paying me to write it.” That sounds quite arrogant. And yet, for the generation that came before us, that was normal. Our parents’ generation did not get a backyard and central heating on the back of micropayments and free giveaways. Me? I think I’m going to have to start being that little bit more arrogant.

    As someone so recently sang in a coded goodbye letter, “I can’t give everything away…”

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  6. And for the other side of the table…

    Freelanced full-time for less than a year out of college (back in 2009), went full-time to a small design studio where they offered 401k, and now am a UX Manager at a decently large software + development firm with respectable salary, 401k w/ matching, myriad healthcare and workplace benefits. Been full-time for the last 7 years. Don’t regret a single second of it. Yeah sometimes the work is not all that exciting but financial security is very exciting!

    As for your financial security - don’t feel bad. It’s not like it was something most of us were taught at a young age. It took me MANY years (and i’m still learning to this day) how to become financially responsible and to save for the future. Yes having a steady income does help and I try to squirrel money away when I have a surplus rather than spend it but with a family it’s very difficult.

    Still at 41 now is the time to take responsibility for your financial future and start socking away those duckets! 70 will be here before you know it…

    Good luck!

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  7. Heather Burns nailed it in a previous comment above.  Goals have realigned significantly since my 20s, rather than the 1950s.  House, heat, food and clothes for the kids, enough income to allow free time to be spent learning more about technology because I’m lucky enough to love my work so I give enough of a 541t about it to want to keep learning.  In 2016 to have the luxury of all those things that requires work, work , work and I think that’s the same for everyone these days regardless of age.  I was never afraid of work but the lifelong rewards just aren’t promised the way they were (or seem to have been) for my parents’ generation so my attitude is work until you can’t and just make damn sure you put enough aside to cover yourself when the time arrives that you can’t work.

    And income insurance.  If you work for yourself get it.  Or play russian roulette. Whichever you prefer.

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  8. Working as a creative is indeed a challenging prospect. I have taken a different path. I am an Assistant Professor in Web and Multimedia design at a local community college. I speak at local networking groups and “un-conferences” where I can. I take on some design jobs when I have to the time. But mostly, I keep abreast in order to keep our academic program current and well - it’s fun. My academic salary takes car of most of the bills, and benefits.

    My M.Ed. is in eLearning Design, so I apply most of my design to online learning projects. I like to remind my students that web coding is like desktop publishing or word-processing; in that you don’t have to be a “web designer” or applications developer to use and benefit from knowledge of web standards. Having some knowledge of it is becoming expected; like knowing how to use Microsoft Word. Learning how to talk to the browser is becoming a cross-disciplinary toolset.

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  9. Really great article. Being self-employed has forced me to become financially responsible, so whatever happens in the future, I’m glad I have been able to do it, but the hours are definitely longer, and the amount you can give back to the community truly fluctuates.

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  10. “If you are in your early twenties, willing to work all night for the love of this industry, and have few pressing expenses, then building up your professional reputation on open source projects and sharing your ideas is a great thing to do.”
    I’m going to disagree with this. I think our industry needs to get over the sacrifice of personal time to demonstrate passion across the board. I burned my 20s doing this and, frankly, regret it. Privilege isn’t just a youth thing.

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  11. In freelance, one has to find a vein of work for which others are willing to pay.

    I’ve noticed that there are many people working freelance who are just not cut out for running a small business (sometimes it’s just no fun/stress levels are high).

    I think Derek Kapa nailed it above: if you aren’t cut out for some sales (and bill collection), then join a group or a company where others are good at those skills, relax and do your work. While enjoying (hopefully) a good salary.

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  12. Very thought provoking reading, thanks. Just a heads up: the “share this on Twitter” button seems to generate a dead link, please check this out.

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  13. Great article, I agree with the enthusiasm of newcomers part entirely. The freshies we have are the only reason we still contribute via free workshops etc.

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  14. This is a great post. I’ve always wondered why something so obvious is so easily missed. “Free” as a business model should have died with the dotcom bust, but so many of the people I see in this field are too young to have been making a living when that happened. It’s as abstract to them as Teapot Dome is to me.

    I would like to respond to Heather about one thing though. And I understand where I think she’s coming from. Every year it’s gotten harder and harder to get started in life. The world’s gotten meaner, it seems. Those of us who are older had simpler times. But I’m still a little stung by one remark.

    The “entitlements our baby boomer parents received on a plate” didn’t go out to all baby boomers. Birth to a privileged family might have gotten you the things I believe you are referring to, but some of us old farts came from families of less wealth and standing. College wasn’t an option for me. My chosen career was gutted by the Internet. I left it in time, but now I’m staring at 60 and having to learn the same technologies 20-year-olds pick up in computer science class. I’m not going to have much of a retirement besides my market-based 401K, which is pretty much a Wall Street scam. I have a back yard, yes. But I won’t have a golden age of sitting in a rocker sipping lemonade. I won’t ever be able to stop working.

    I know you and your generation has it tough. I feel for you. At the same time, I know people in mine who are terrified about what will happen in the next 5-10 years. It isn’t easy for any of us.

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  15. When we gripe about paying for something or put pressure on a sole project maintainer to quickly fix an issue, we’re thinking only about our own need to get things done.

    We’re all guilty victims of bounded rationality — that is, making the best decisions we can with the info we’re given, but usually harming ourselves and the health of the system at large because we don’t have the full picture.

    If we were armed with more information, we might be enticed to make self-centred decisions that nevertheless benefit the entire system (“I’ll sponsor this person’s blog because if we all nurture web dev bloggers my future employees will have more chances to develop their skill, and I’ll spend less on training”). Or people could appeal to our conscience. I do think that part of the solution is to have a broader awareness of how the whole system functions.

    Articles like this are good, because they start broadening people’s awareness. But I don’t know how to solve the problem that people will still try to optimise their actions for their own short-term benefit, even decent people.

    I really like how open-source developers are running crowdfunding campaigns; it gives the community at large the chance to offer some sort of sponsorship. Wonder how well it works.

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  16. “If you are in your early twenties, willing to work all night for the love of this industry, and have few pressing expenses, then building up your professional reputation on open source projects and sharing your ideas is a great thing to do.”

    I guess that this is how many of us started, and let’s hope that this is going to be the case in the future, because we need “fresh ideas”, and those ideas might not come out from big corporation.

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  17. The internet has created a race to the bottom that seems to never end. Globalization has also broke down so many barriers. I have to compete with people willing to outsource on websites such as Upwork. The funny thing is that our parents are always slamming the younger generations for not “putting in their time” but their version of putting in their time was in the mailroom. Sure, it wasn’t glamorous. But at least it wasn’t “Free”

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  18. Interesting article. I’m a freelancer and still in my 20s, so I suppose my standpoint is a little different. I use the unavoidable slow times every business faces once in a while to create contents or prepare for the next conference.

    Giving back to the community feels great, but you can also use that as a marketing/branding strategy, especially if you work in a competitive industry - anything that helps you stand out can really help.

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  19. Good analysis that has made me think much. Thank you.

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  20. A good question to ask might be “how do other industries handle this”? After all, web development is a very young profession, relatively. Could we better develop our professional associations or organizations to take a role in supporting the community, with us in turn helping to support them? Is there much real point in worrying about preserving the influence of unaffiliated individuals on spec development in a world where it’s already really up to big companies (the browser makers) what gets implemented and how? There’s even the question of whether “free” is that important of a goal after all - a project built on someone’s spare time and voluntary community participation is inherently unreliable, which makes it risky to use. Likewise, even if the speakers at these events are unpaid, the people attending the events still paid for their tickets (or had someone pay for them). How much of the perceived importance of “free” is ideology rather than practicality?

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  21. Great article and so true.

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  22. The problem I have is I find it very easy to say “Sure I can do that,” and a few minutes later I realize that I just volunteered several hours of my time for something that someone may not even appreciate at all.

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  23. great post thanks for the info..

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  24. Sorry, commenting is closed on this article.