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The unexpected benefits and challenges of a passion project
Side hustles. Those very exciting, but often exhausting ‘passion projects’ we take on outside of our day job. It’s a topic of regular conversation in our team, because we basically all have one. You’re reading one of mine right now. 👋
So today I’m going to reflect on the benefits and challenges of a side hustle to a UX person’s career and development, and how we’ve seen it play out in our team. And to do this (because.. research) I’m going to interrogate my excellent colleague Paul Dellow, who has now Kickstarted his awesome game Planet Fulcrum, which has been his side hustle for literally years.
Let’s talk about ‘side hustles’
A lot of people start a side project only to drop it a few months later when life gets busy. Some turn what starts as a side hustle into a full time business that eventually replaces working for The Man. Some manage to balance the two for years on end — getting enjoyment and exhaustion from both in equal measure.
For those who find balance, particularly designers and UX people, there often develops a two-way relationship of transferrable skills and learning between side hustle and day job, no matter how far apart the two might first seem.
For me, this makes ‘hustling’ UXers great to work with, because they are always bringing new skills and perspectives to our client work.
What UX brings to a side hustle
This is the easy bit. UX people can quickly find connections between their day-to-day UCD work for clients — and designing products, services and start ups as their side hustle.
Scenario 1 — You start with a user need that fires you up
If you have an idea for a startup it’s probably because you’ve identified a need among a group of users, and you probably care about fixing it A LOT.
Your task is then to explore that opportunity, and follow a user-centred / design thinking process until you have solved the problem to your own level of satisfaction — whether it’s a prototype for a case study, or a live app MVP.
Scenario 2 — You start with something you love
More likely is that you have something (seemingly) totally unrelated to UX that you do just for the love of it, but at some point it becomes a monetisable proposition — i.e. someone offers you money in exchange for The Thing.
At this point, the UX skills should kick in and your instinct may be to take a step back, assess the competitive landscape and use primary research to align your project to a real user need that you can solve.
UX brings focus and user (customer)-centricity to your side hustle’s design process
What your side hustle brings to UX
What isn’t always recognised, is the bi-directionality of skills and learning between UX day job and side hustle.
Whether it’s knitting hats, building an app or releasing an album — there are going to be massively transferable skills you didn’t even know you were learning that will suddenly be relevant to your day job, and make you a better, more rounded and more employable UXer.
Because now you are EVERY role and department, not just the UX team.
- Business — Whether you like it or not, the minute someone suggests money in exchange for side hustle activities, you are essentially running a business. Over time you may learn the minutae of accounting, but at a minimum you’re going to learn about effort/reward, the best use of your economic capital (time), and how to turn a profit… or not. You’ll also learn about real-world product limitations and why decisions are made on the business side that can impact the user experience on the front end.
- Marketing & comms —If you have social media accounts attached to your hustle, you’re going to learn about social content creation, interacting with followers (users), and developing social capital for your hustle. You will learn about your different types of followers (personas), what they want from your hustle. And much like user research on the job, what you learn is going to surprise you.
- PR & branding — If you’re hustling online or in person, you’re going to need some kind of brand. If you don’t create one, one will be created for your by your content and actions. So over time you will learn how you want to be perceived, what language fits with that, what parts of “you” you want to share with the world in relation to your hustle. As well as the usual brand stuff like colours, logos etc.
- Data — What analytics are you using? Even without realising it, if you are looking at your Tiktok stats, your ‘gram followers or your Etsy sales — that’s all data analysis. Understanding what is happening on your platforms and changing your behaviour in response, are skills that you can apply to design decisions made in the day job, even if asking about data isn’t usually part of your role.
- “Stretch” design skills — You may focus mostly on UX design at work, but find yourself creating animations or UI in your hustle. You may need to make videos of your work, or learn how to add closed captions to social content. You may (as I have) learn physical craft skills that allow you to design and build real-world experiences and confidently design your day job projects beyond the screen.
- Real world experience — There is nothing quite like seeing the whole picture of a business or product play out in the real world. Working in UX, you often only see part of the product process. You may be a part of the design process as a UX Lead, or be entirely responsible for one feature as a Product Designer — but when you have your own hustle, you are every department and every skill set and you are fully exposed to what the world thinks about everything you’re doing. That’s going to change your perspective and increase the empathy you have for the rest of your day job team and stakeholders.
As a real case study of the kinds of things I’ve mentioned above, plus the challenges that day job + side hustle brings, let’s ask Paul Dellow some questions about his experience of bringing Planet Fulcrum to life — a hustle which has involved 8 years of side work, whilst holding down a successful, full time career in the UX industry.
Interview with Paul Dellow — Founder of Planet Fulcrum and UX Lead at Ogilvy London
How did you get started with Planet Fulcrum?
Way back in the day (2008) I wanted to gain a stronger working knowledge of web development to enable me to design better online experiences. I had over 2000 comic books not doing much, so I decided to create my own little e-commerce comic book store.
I named it ‘Planet Fulcrum — Centre of the comic book universe’. I started with a WordPress template and tinkered around in PHP, HTML, CSS and even SQL for what seemed like an age. Then I was finally ready to upload all 2000 comic book covers.
It was then that something struck me.
Looking at all the different characters on each of the covers with their different powers and talents, some god-like, others more cerebral, athletic and human, it really struck me how amazing each character was within their own comic-verse.
But what if their worlds ever collided? Who would come out on top? For example, Superman vs. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT). Both a big part of my childhood and I love them both, but it’s really not a contest.
So what if there was a place that could level the playing field? That’s when Planet Fulcrum really started and that thought really underpins what the entire game is about.
What skills did you take from your design career?
The board game actually represents every part of the design skillset I’ve picked up in the working world. From Editorial Design to Graphic Design to Illustration to UI and of course UX. All have played an important role at some stage of the process in creating the game.
The use of personas have also influenced the game, but not as you might think. I don’t mean myself as a designer using personas to better understand the user, but rather taking the ethos of a persona as a tool for the player to imagine themselves within the game. In Planet Fulcrum, how they play the game influences their in-game characteristics such as their abilities, allegiance and morality.
What skills did you learn from creating Planet Fulcrum that have been useful in the day job?
From a web perspective I’ve used Planet Fulcrum as a sandbox to learn about newer technologies, e.g., the character builder , which is a React application (though I cannot claim to have coded it, that was down to a very talented man by the name of David Ashenden).
It has also provided me with a good excuse to use the 3D modelling tool Maya, Adobe After Effects and Premier Pro for the game’s promotional assets.
Risk is a big learning here also. This has been a great educator in things going wrong, knowing when to pivot, and when to kill a design feature that just isn’t working.
What surprised you the most?
The design psychology of board games.
For interface design, we only tend to think about how a single user interacts with a single interface. Yes, we bake in best practice and accessibility for it to be used by the many, but board games introduce the a whole new social interaction dynamic that needs to be carefully navigated to ensure everyone is also having fun.
For example; King-making (AKA the petty diplomacy problem) is where there are three interests, and one recognises that they cannot win the game. In this case, that loser may be able to determine which of the other two wins. Even if the game is being played by more than three, it will often come down to three major interests. More generally, if a losing player can determine who wins, you have Kingmaking in play.
This is one example of game psychology you need to design for, which would never be part of traditional interface design in the day job.
How do you find balance between work and side hustle?
You learn to adapt, but also you learn to draw some boundaries too.
For example it’s often too easy to fall into the trap of always over-working in your day job, because you want to impress or because others expect you to work All The Hours.
Knowing that I have had another focus has over the years allowed me to be more firm in my stance of not falling into the agency trap of overworking.
What advice do you have for other hustling UXers?
Side hustles are a fantastic way to build out your skills as a professional. They expose you to other areas of business that you may not have encountered before, which will only add value to you as a practitioner. Get a side hustle!
Now that you’ve kickstarted, what’s next for you?
Let’s see what happens. I can breathe a sigh of relief that the game is now, in my eyes, complete. And I’m not expecting it to pull up any trees for me, but I’d like to be able to say I am a published game designer. Beyond that I need to see what reignites my passion…
As Paul found with Planet Fulcrum, there are some challenges inherent in having both a side hustle and a full time job, as well as huge benefits and opportunities to learn.
From my own projects and those of the team, I’d say the two biggest are time and consistency.
Side hustles take time. One of the comments I get is “how do you have time to do all this?” and the answer is — I’m lucky, and I’m stubborn. In short, I have a job that doesn’t require me to work 18 hours a day (most of the time). I have done so in the past, so I know that makes a side hustle impossible.
In addition, I married another hustler (that helps!) and I take every hour spare and use it on one of my projects, whether that’s learning or creating. Though Netflix happens sometimes, obvs.
We also make a huge effort as a day job UX team to support each others’ hustles. Often when you have a hustle you are working solo. So knowing that others around you show an interest, will retweet your stuff, or will cut you some slack if you’re knackered from a Kickstarter launch or hanging an exhibition all weekend.. every little helps.
Even with the best will, time management and team support in the world, life happens. It is unavoidable that the day job gets busy sometimes, life drama unfolds and you have to shelve your project for a while. So one of the hardest things is coming back to it with the same motivation you had before any interruptions.
Side hustles themselves need to be designed so that you can run them as not-a-9-to-5. It has to be something that is, or at least has elements, that you can pick up and put down easily. It cannot involve so many commitments that you can’t take a break without losing momentum completely.
Find your bliss
Many people will have heard the phrase “follow your bliss”. A side hustle is often that — it’s the thing you do because you love it, not because someone will pay you for it. When those two worlds merge, it’s hard to stop your passion project from becoming just more work, or something you resent doing entirely.
Learning is one way that you can manage all of this. If you connect something you love to skills you can use in your day job, then both gigs will add value to your life and career development, making it easier to manage your time across both, without sacrificing either.
Even if one takes the back burner for a while, you will always still be learning and growing.