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When Scope Creep and Difficult Clients Turn Spooky, This May Help

Being a freelancer or consultant isn't for the faint of heart. Here's how to respect your boundaries and improve your client projects.

Words by Nikki Anderson-Stanier, Visuals by Nicky Mazur

As a user researcher, I’ve become accustomed to projects changing in scope or stakeholders who were more challenging to work with.

A usability test would turn into a weird mix of concept testing and generative research, or a survey would turn into visual design testing, all of which I had to do yesterday.

It was always a stressful experience when the scope changed or a stakeholder was being difficult, but it was something I could work around. So I put different mechanisms into place to try and avoid these scenarios, such as an intake or prioritization process.

I also took the time to empathize with my stakeholders, getting to know them through stakeholder interviews and earning goodwill by ensuring I did research that could directly support their goals.

And then, I came to consultancy work.

Jump to:

New challenges with consulting

Consultancy work was a completely different situation. I was thrown into a (usually failing) project part-way through with people I had zero relationships with. Unfortunately, the picture painted when I initially talked through the project scope was very different from what I encountered.

My estimated hours were never enough, especially considering the actual state of the project and how the stakeholders were feeling. I found myself in this situation multiple times.

I would have to change the project scope without getting paid for the extra work, and deal with requirements or outcomes varying depending on the day of the week.

Eventually, I got sick of this type of work and returned to the full-time role of an in-house researcher. While this had its challenges, I felt more comfortable tackling them. However, I didn't think I could return to that consultancy world. In addition, my confrontation and communication skills didn't feel up to par.

Years later, I found myself in an exciting position to start my business. While I primarily work with coaching user researchers and within my user research membership, I also do consultancy projects. I knew this would mean diving into a scary area in which I never felt fully confident. But this was my chance to change my mindset and embrace the unknown that comes with consultancy work.

Since then, I’ve honed my client-facing communication and scoping skills and have become a successful consultant. If you're considering entering the consultancy space—or are already in it—here are some ways I have mitigated difficult clients and scope creep.

Battling project and scope creep

Scope creep is just as bad as it sounds. It happens when a scope change occurs without accurate documentation or process. Typically, you’re looking at the uncontrolled growth of a project. Suddenly you've gone from conducting five usability tests to 15 tests, a survey, and a follow-up concept test on this new and exciting feature we have to get information on.

When it comes to in-house research, there are ways you can mitigate this by working with your colleagues on a "phase two" of the study or rearranging timelines. However, with consultancy, you’re typically working within a highly constrained timeline and budget.

Therefore, you may deal with heavy consequences if you don't finish the requirements by the end of the contractual period.

It's easy to get sucked in

One of my first consultancy projects was for a company that wanted me to help test two prototypes of a new feature and flow they were working on.

Easy peasy, right? Seven participants per segment. Usability testing script. A report focusing on usability improvements.

Done and done. Proposal sent.

By the end of this project, I wanted to run screaming back to my in-house user research team of one. From where I stood, it didn't look so bad anymore. In fact, what was I complaining about in the first place?!


I attended the first meeting with stakeholders to understand who we needed to recruit. There were about three segments, which meant we needed to test with 14 more people. No one could prioritize down to one segment.

And then I saw the prototypes. Yes, prototypes. There were three prototypes that the team wanted to test. Three prototypes would mean a more extended session to ensure I could get through all three.

And then, the stakeholders said the outcome they sought was the participant's preference. Now, I hate preference with all of my soul. We can't even begin to understand people's preference for prototypes within the context of user research. So then I had to educate them that usability is more important than preference. That educational piece took a lot more time than I anticipated.

And then, just as I familiarized myself with the prototypes, another stakeholder came to me. They had this kind of adjacent, sort of similar idea they wanted to test with the same types of participants. So it would "just be a quick concept test at the end of the usability tests."

By the end of this project, I wanted to run screaming back to my in-house user research team of one. From where I stood, it didn't look so bad anymore. In fact, what was I complaining about in the first place?!

I ended up doing the work—a lot of it for free—and trying to understand a better process from that moment forward.

How I avoid scope creep

The best way to learn is through experience. Unfortunately, that wasn't the only scope creep situation I found myself in. It took me multiple projects to realize I couldn't just hope for the best. I had to put mechanisms into place to minimize the risk of scope creep.

Now, whenever I go into a consultancy project, I feel much more prepared through these steps.

If the primary person hiring you isn't someone on the project, always ask to talk to a stakeholder you'd be directly working with. This person can give you more context on goals and the current situation.

✔ Have a list of questions

At first, I went into meetings asking people to explain the project. I took it all at face value. Of course the person looking for a consultant knew what they wanted! Not quite. I now have a list of questions, similar to my intake document, that I use to understand the ins and outs of what they are looking for—and if there's a potential for scope creep.

✔ Ask to speak to someone on the project

If the primary person hiring you isn't someone on the project, always ask to talk to a stakeholder you'd be directly working with. This person can give you more context on goals and the current situation. You may have to sign an NDA to talk shop, but it's worth it.

Doing so will also give you a better idea of what it's like working with team members before you dive in head-on.

✔ Understand the necessary pre-work

How research mature are the stakeholders? What type of education do they have? Are they asking for usability tests but needing generative research? Never ignore all that foundational work you'll have to do to properly launch the project, because you'll end up short changing yourself in the end. It's also important to spell out this pre-work in your proposal to convey its value.

✔ Write (and sign!) a detailed proposal

Based on the initial conversations, I write a detailed proposal that clearly calls out the project's scope and expected outcomes. I have the client review this proposal, and we will make any necessary changes. Once finalized, I create one or two packages (more on that below) based on the scope. We then both sign the proposal. With this, you can always highlight the agreed-upon scope when navigating scope creep.

✔ Offer two packages

I love to offer choices to my clients. I typically give them a choice between a lean and strategic package. The lean package includes the "basics" of the project, everything we discussed, and nothing more.

The strategic package includes additional time in education and gives more back-and-forth and flexibility within the project's scope. Do we need to change something last minute and add an extra prototype? That would be covered. However, you always want to maintain boundaries with your packages, so ensure these add-ons are specific and clear!

✔ Have an option for add-ons

People are prone to underestimating project timelines. In fact, this is a well-documented phenomenon called the "planning fallacy."

If you feel comfortable, I recommend giving options for add-ons. Let's say that you realize you need to research an extra segment. The company could add this to the project's current scope. I usually allow for one or two add-ons to a project, depending on my time.

The best thing you can do with project scope is to put on your researcher hat and ask as many up-front questions as possible. And then document everything you learn. Setting expectations from the start can make or break a project on both sides.

Make sure you have a clear and structured proposal that includes your boundaries!

The customer is (usually) right

We care so much about people's experiences that it can be hard when we are up against a difficult client. What happens when you do all the right things, but the client still demands more or does not listen to you?

There are a few ways I have handled difficult clients:

✔ Write it all down

As I said, agree on expectations, responsibilities, and scope, and write it all down. Sign on the dotted line to signify everyone agrees!

Some clauses you may want to include:

  • Project start and end time
  • Specific project scope and deliverables
  • Cost and/or timeline of add-ons
  • How change of scope may incur price or timeline changes
  • A potential termination clause (i.e., 14 days written notice on either side if duties are not fulfilled by either party)
  • Payment terms, method, and timeline

✔ Look toward resolution

I used to get defensive when a client problem arose, which meant I tried to justify my points or approach. No one has fun in a justification match. Instead, explain why you believe the problem happened and keep bringing up possible solutions or next steps to resolve the issue—rather than focusing on what happened.

✔ Find out a communication style and reach out

Communication is critical in consultancy work because you’re typically not integrated into the company or team. Find out how your clients like to communicate and stick to that style. Then, make a schedule for you to reach out regularly. The more you share what's happening, the less space there is for miscommunication or misalignment.

✔ Get ahead of scope creep

If scope creep becomes an issue, get ahead of it as soon as you notice. Communicate back to your client what additional requirements or needs they are asking from you and assign how much time it will take to tackle those additions and the associated fees.

In that communication, state that you won’t be able to work on any additional requirements until the change order is approved, which typically speeds up the client’s response. Only take on work that you can do!

It’s okay to say no to additional work outside the project's scope due to timing or other projects you have lined up. Always refer back to the original agreement if conversations start to get heated.

✔ Approach problems early

If there’s a problem, flag it as early as possible. I’m hugely guilty of previously being so confrontationally adverse that I knew there was a problem but wouldn't raise it until the last minute. No one ever won in that situation.

If there is an issue, such as recruitment taking too long or a problem with a prototype, bring it to someone immediately. This approach helps build trust and makes it easier to resolve.

✔ Know when to walk away

I've had to leave several projects because the scope kept growing, and the demands exceeded what we agreed upon. The client blamed me for things beyond my control and quickly realized I was a scapegoat for their crappy process.

I drafted a short email saying that it was best we went our separate ways, listing why, and giving my notice (which was evident in my contract!). It can be challenging to walk away from money, but sometimes you have to do it!

I highly recommend that everyone try consultancy work, since it can bring up such unique situations and learnings. As tough as it was, my consultancy work made me a better researcher and more empathetic person. Seeing and understanding different types of projects and teams is also a great experience.

Just ensure you are clear, concise, and straightforward in all your communication—and always write everything down!

Feel cool, calm, and collected before your next proposal with this template

The Project Preparation and Proposal Template includes:

  • Questions to ask potential clients to understand exactly what they're looking for (and if there's potential for scope creep)
  • A list of questions to ask the stakeholder directly
  • A fill-in-the-blank proposal section to break down what's included in the project i.e. the goals, the working hours, planned research activities, and expected deliverables.

Nikki Anderson-Stanier is the founder of User Research Academy and a qualitative researcher with 9 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs. 

To get even more UXR nuggets, check out her user research membershipfollow her on LinkedIn, or subscribe to her Substack.

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