Frontify’s Interview Series: Jane Portman

Frontify’s Interview Series: Jane Portman

Frontify shines a spotlight this time around on Jane Portman, an independent UI/UX consultant from Russia who helps SaaS founders build focused, profitable products. She enjoys writing and speaking at events, but most of all she likes to solve real-life business problems with smart UI design.

Tell us a bit about your move from being a designer and creative director to the world of UI/UX. I’ve always been a UI designer by trade (and always interested in UX), so the actual activities didn’t change too much. But the positioning and the thought process changed a lot. After becoming an independent consultant, I quickly realized that the only way to level up my game was to leverage the business knowledge.

I read a ton of business books and shifted away from the paradigm of visual design. After studying the world of SaaS companies, I concluded that the words “UI/UX consultant” yield better respect (and have more technical and business connotation) that merely “a UI designer.” So naming myself the right way and learning about the business side of things were the key steps for the transition.

What spurred you to decide to leave the agency world to become an independent consultant? My first son was born in 2012, and I was supposed to stay at home on maternity leave for at least 12-18 months (that’s how it works in Russia). First I was just having rest after the agency grind. After 3 months I realized that I want to go back to my craft, but not to this kind of environment. Being a creative director is great because you have so many resources at hand, but the responsibility and the management load are horrendous. I wanted to simply do my best work, pick my own projects and set my own deadlines. So I gradually started out online, building authority, a client base, and personal network from scratch.

What kind of companies do you work with? Why did you decide to focus on this segment? I work with established SaaS companies who have already gained initial traction and have enough revenue to pay for my services. I need to make sure that my clients are serious about their business and are capable of shipping. That helps to eliminate 80% of startups who even fail to ship their initial version (and it’s a big pain to see that your design was never brought to life). At the moment most of my clients and friends are from the bootstrapped ecosystem, but I’m looking to expand into the field of funded startups.

In terms of the subject, previously I did a lot of mobile app design, but then shifted to web applications. They monetize much better (roughly speaking, $30-50/month as opposed to a $5 one-time purchase) and solve real business problems. I don’t devalue the importance of mobile, but I personally think it’s complementary to the core web app experience.

What are the common issues that your clients face when they come to you for help? Most often I find web apps more complex than they need to be. My job is to find clarity and simplicity in the most challenging situations. Complex navigation, witty screen layouts, unclear language, inconsistent fonts and styles — these are the most common issues.

What trends are you seeing in the industry that you like? I’m thrilled to live in the era of flat design, when clean minimal layouts are actually appreciated. It was impossible to pull of such things with clients five years ago, when “cool design” implied skeuomorphic layouts and heavy textures. It’s also great that the industry (and the users) have matured, and we can more confidently rely on common UX patterns.

What are you seeing that you dislike? Even though UI/UX design has been around for a while, it seems that we haven’t yet come to terms what exactly these words mean, so there’s certain snobbism (and unnecessary discussion) around the industry itself. How do you say, UI/UX or UX/UI? What’s UI design and how much of it is visual design? What’s creative direction? I think we should focus less on labeling things, and spend more time actually building good software. That’s the ultimate goal.

You offer a 1 hour UI audit on your site. How detailed can you get in an hour? The 1-Hour UI Audit is a free DIY exercise that anyone can perform with their web application. You’d be surprised, but it’s enough to clarify the basic product strategy, and to have a fresh look at each screen from this fresh viewpoint. The goal here is to obtain a new mindset, which is already a huge step forward.

Where do you get the energy to develop all of the courses, books and materials that you have on the go AND have a life? Great question! Of course it’s a bit of everyday struggle. It’s tough to do something consistently, so I’ve come to embrace the “wave” patterns in my productivity. Most big things (like books or courses) have been done in short sprints. I think the secret is not to book yourself up with consulting work, which is only possible if you charge high rates or have passive income from products (I’m lucky to do both). I’d say, consulting takes just 20% of my time, and the other 80% is working on my own projects and marketing.

Generally speaking, I don’t take pride in working 80-hour weeks on regular basis. Most times it means you can’t organize your work or your priorities.

It’s also important to find joy in content creation. You’re always free to pick the format you prefer (I like podcasting and writing, some people like video) and interact with people you genuinely like.

Why did you decide to create a podcast? What is your mission for this project? What kind of impact has it made for you, your interviewees and listeners? Initially in 2014 I just wanted to get confident at speaking in front of a mic, and try out the format itself. During my first recording I was so nervous it seemed that the chair was burning behind my back! But with time I discovered I enjoy it a lot: a conversation of two people is a magical format.

We record the podcast in seasons, 4-6 episodes with the same co-host. It allows us to record 2-3 episodes in a single sitting, know each other much better, become comfortable, and dig out way more interesting ideas. So far I’ve been talking more about business practices (podcasting, outreach, products, client work, etc). My next goal to focus on design itself. Even though I find it very challenging to talk about design on air!

Now as the podcast gained some traction, I get a lot of good feedback from listeners, and conclude that it’s a great format for content marketing. It adds an extra point for the authority, and helps to establish a more personal connection with guests and listeners.

What advice would you give to a designer who is thinking about making the move into the UX/UI space? Read some UI/UX books and just start practicing the craft, growing your rates slowly. In addition to actual design knowledge, it’s critical that you know how software businesses operate — how they develop, position, market, and sell their products. This way you can give relevant advice and provide business reasoning for your design decisions. You’ll absolutely stand out among other designers with this approach!

I wrote my latest book, The UI Audit, for SaaS founders, but it’s highly applicable to designers who want to become indispensable for their business and product skills. So I recommend you check it out here (free chapter and worksheets are also available).

But the true secret to success is to learn about the business of consulting itself, which enables you to sell your services and position yourself as an authority. Start blogging, building a list, maybe write a book. It’s not that hard, but it works wonders compared to a regular resume or portfolio. I’m being asked for advice all the time, so I put together a collection of books and free web resources that will help you get a grasp of all relevant industries.

Hope this helps, and good luck in your UI/UX career!

We hope you enjoyed this interview. Leave us a comment to let us know your thoughts on what Jane had to say. Are you looking to move from design to UX/UI design? Did you find Jane’s links helpful? Let us know or check out Jane's Twitter!

If you’re interested in being interviewed for the Frontify blog, please drop us a line

Fabienne Klauser
Fabienne Klauser
Chief Happiness Officer