I don’t know what I want. Can I pick your brain?

What is the most common topic of conversation that seems to take place?

I don't know where to start? I have some idea what I want, but not sure where to begin or how to go about it. Can I pick your brain a little to get started on my own?

Can I pick your brain?

Picking someone's brain is a common question and topic of conversation. It's also the most complicated and sometimes uncomfortable topic. Why?

Designing takes time and it takes many years to become skilled in this area. There are some people who may be willing to let you pick their brain… for about 5 minutes. But think about it: after spending over 20 years plus time earning a college degree to reach your professional level, would you give away all your knowledge for free?

What is a service provider's only commodity? Time.

Yep. Time. There's a limited supply of it and no way to get any of it back. If time is given away, there is no way to restore it. It's those precious moments that might be taken away from YOUR project or some other client who has hired a service provider to provide something. The domino effect is staggering.

This example may be viewed one of two ways: completely realistic or dramatic. But it is in fact true.

Over the past few years, this “pick your brain” topic has become quite a hot controversy yet few are able to answer without coming across as rude (despite the ‘not so fair question') and others don't stick to their guns and say “time is money”, and fail charge for consultations.

One example might be Website Audits. In order to diagnose website problems, it takes time. Often, a lot of time. Several hours poured into digging through a website created by someone else, none of which is paid for.

If you think about it, it's starting to sound like an odd request to “pick your brain” or “can you take a look and see what's wrong?”, right?

When you go to the doctor to see what's wrong, you pay. You pay for the visit, the potential tests, and a variety of other things.

No, I am not saying I'm a doctor (although, the dry cleaner ruined mine so I can't prove it). But I am saying that the core scenario is exactly the same.

A doctor will not spend the time with you, listen, answer questions, give medical advice, and even perform tests for free… all because you are curious what might be causing your overwhelming sense of malaise, right?

Service providers often get the short end of the stick.

Recently I offered a “website audit special” at a discounted rate for a limited time. And during that time, I was still asked (for free) to review sites, if I could find the problem, and fix them. That is why I charge for a website audit, no? The phone and diagnostic time, not to mention the time to fix the potential problem could take over 10 hours. That's 25% of a work week (conservatively speaking) so would you do all that for free? What happens to all the paying clients?

Basically, I would have to work overtime to make up the difference of all that lost time given away for free. That's the time I could be eating, sleeping, relaxing and playing with my dog.

Aren't consultations always free?

Okay, that's a fair question, but sadly, no. Consultations are not always free. Even if you get lucky and receive a free consultation, it is usually brief. After a certain period of time, you will either need to retain that service provider, or the meeting is over.

There is a difference between a consultation (which are usually shorter and meant for getting a general sense of what is needed) and a pick your brain session. The latter tend to have an agenda involving specific questions with expectations of receiving specific answers. Those answers have value since they are backed by many years worth of experience and skilled practice.

This doesn't make designers horrible people. Designers simply value their time.

A good designer usually wants to go above and beyond for clients and we'll do everything we can to help and deliver great results. The results will always come at a price.

With only so many hours in a day to complete work, there must be a limit on “pro-bono” or “free work”. Asking someone to pick their brain instead of hiring them, is actually a nice way of saying:

I value your experience; I just don't want to pay for it.

If only it were that easy.

What has your experience been?

We'd love to hear from you, regardless of which side you're on (client or designer). Leave a comment and let us know!

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