Using Prior Work in Your Portfolio | Moving from MIS to UX

Ask UXmatters

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A column by Janet M. Six
April 27, 2009

This time, Ask UXmatters covers two topics:

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Using Your Prior Work in Your Online Portfolio

Q: Have you run into problems with your company forbidding you to use the work you’ve done for them in your online portfolio, even after the products are in the market? If so, how have you gotten around this problem?—from a UXmatters reader

The following experts answer this question:

  • John Ferrara—Information Architect at Vanguard
  • David Malouf—Professor of Interaction Design at Savannah College of Art & Design; Founder and former Vice President, Interaction Design Association (IxDA)
  • Greg Nudelman—User Interface Designer at Ketera; UXmatters columnist
  • Whitney Quesenbery—Principal Consultant at Whitney Interactive Design; Past-President, Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA); Fellow, Society for Technical Communications (STC); and UXmatters columnist

Strategies for Overcoming Publication Challenges

“I think anyone working in design or user experience would probably answer yes,” answers Greg. “To overcome such challenges, I have used several strategies with variable success:

  1. Sell the company the benefits of publication. Many companies see any publication as inherently risky. Companies are risk averse. This is the reality. There have to be some tangible benefits for a company to take the risk at letting you publish anything. In the past, I have made points such as these:
    • Winners flock with winners. You will attract top-notch design and UX talent by showing your design expertise.
    • You will attract more investors by showing off your design expertise.

I am sure you can think of other reasons that apply in your own situation.

  1. Get key people on board. If you need your boss’s permission to publish, make him or her one of the group of authors, giving that person full credit for hiring a smart, ambitious go-getter like yourself. If there is a well-placed, influential person in your department, get his or her support before you pitch it to your boss.
  2. Obfuscate and publish in an industry journal. Sometimes the first two benefits are easier to absorb if an industry journal publishes the material. Of course, in that case, a certain amount of obfuscation might be necessary to get its publication approved. Depending on the level of obfuscation necessary, the material might make a more or less valuable paper. For example, in some of my own papers, I was able to come up with some valuable general design principles, yet reveal nothing about the specific nature of the project I worked on.
  3. Get a patent. A patent, assuming something is patentable, invites full disclosure. Of course, key people still have to be on board and convince the company of the patent’s value.
  4. Ask forgiveness, not permission. You do this at your own risk—and only as a last resort. If you make this choice and are still employed at the company, be prepared to look for new employment sooner rather than later, because your boss will perceive you as no longer being committed to the company’s success.”

The Best Approach Depends

“This seems to be a perennial question,” Whitney tells us, “but it’s hard to help you brainstorm solutions without knowing what your relationship is to the company. If you work somewhere full time and plan to keep on doing so, I guess I can see why your company would not be interested in helping you create an online portfolio to advertise your work. Some companies, right or wrong, want to control how their material is presented and how they are represented.

“Companies may not want to let their competitors know who they work with, especially when an application is part of their core business. In one case, an international aid agency feared that any use of their name in a portfolio would look like an endorsement. They were less worried about a few Web designers than large companies, but their policy was broadly applied. We weren’t even allowed to list them as a client. On the other hand, it turned out they welcomed papers and articles about their work, as long as someone on their staff shared in the writing and credit, and that gave us a way to talk about some of the more innovative aspects of the project.

“A more difficult problem occurs when you are looking for your next job. Without samples of your work, it’s hard to create a portfolio for job interviews. Of course, if the work is out in the marketplace, that is a bit easier than for applications that exist only behind a corporate firewall, because you can talk about your role on a product and point people to your work online. You’ll have to keep tabs on the site though, because it won’t be the one you worked on forever—then the Internet Archive Wayback Machine comes in handy.

“I once interviewed someone with a very clever solution to this problem. She wove a story out of several projects, showing some of the challenges she had faced and how she had solved them. Instead of including complete screen shots, she created closeups of the problem areas, eliminating identifying information or anything that might give away a business secret. By focusing on her contributions to the projects, she created a more compelling story than a series of case studies focusing on the products themselves would have made.

“You might also ask whether the problem is that the portfolio is online. I have several examples of work that I am allowed to show other prospective clients, but which I cannot leave with them or make public in any way. Would your company be happier with having their material behind a password?”

Walking a Fine Line

“Well, since I’m out of the corporate world right now, I’ll tell you the truth: I show it anyway,” advises Dave. “This is a double-edged sword. I don’t put it in my public portfolio, but during my private interviews, I do show work that would be deemed confidential. I use my best judgment about who I show it to, depending on who I’m interviewing with and how much of a direct competitor they are with the company whose material I’m presenting, and I also always highlight that I’m not supposed to be showing them the work. And this is the double-edged sword: While it is great that I can show a potential employer my work, I run the risk they might think I won’t be trustworthy when it comes to the work I would potentially do for them.

“Lastly, I consider the company I’m working for. How strict are they really with their intellectual property? Have I seen or heard about them really protecting their interests? I have heard horrible stories about a few organizations, but there are very few who ever follow through at all. The real trick is that a company has to be able to prosecute, which takes evidence. So you must trust the people who are interviewing you to keep your confidences.”

Proceed with Caution

“Some organizations are more protective of the work you’ve done for them than others, especially for internal projects, Web sites with limited access, and digital products sold on the retail market,” warns John. “The first thing to keep in mind is that a company owns the work and has the right to protect it. You can open yourself to legal liability if you post images or documentation online without their express permission.

“That said, many organizations are willing to negotiate an agreement regarding what you can and cannot show, depending upon their specific concerns. Ask whether it would be acceptable to feature some screens if company-sensitive information were obscured or the content changed to Greek text—Lorem ipsum. If the concern is about showing proprietary interfaces, ask whether removing particular features from the screen would alleviate those worries. Always give them the opportunity to review and approve the screens exactly as they would appear before actually posting them. In the most severe cases, you might be able to provide only an approximate description of the work you did or even of the company itself. And unfortunately, you’ll need to settle for that, but in my experience such inflexibility is pretty uncommon.”

Moving from MIS to User Experience

Q: I have recently become interested in interaction design and the psychology of design that is centered around the human learning curve. I am currently an undergraduate Management Information Systems (MIS) major. It seems that interaction design is an interdisciplinary field, but I have noticed a great number of Web developers and industrial designers. Is there room at all for someone with an educational background such as mine? What courses can I take to develop a further understanding of the field and acquire skills that would make me marketable to the industry? Also, any reading you can suggest would be greatly appreciated. I recently picked up The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman.—from a UXmatters reader

These experts offer answers to this question:

  • Leo Frishberg—Principal User Experience Architect at Tektronix Inc.
  • Pabini Gabriel-Petit—Publisher and Editor in Chief, UXmatters; Principal User Experience Architect at Spirit Softworks; Founder and Emeritus Member of Board of Directors, Interaction Design Association (IxDA)
  • Peter Hornsby—Senior Information Architect at Friends Provident
  • David Malouf—Professor of Interaction Design at Savannah College of Art & Design; Founder and former Vice President, Interaction Design Association (IxDA)
  • Janet Six—Principal at Lone Star Interaction Design; UXmatters Managing Editor and columnist

Yes, There Is!

“There is definitely room for people with diverse backgrounds to enter the field of user experience, including those with MIS or other technical backgrounds,” Pabini responds. “This diversity is actually a boon to the profession, which is enriched by the cross-pollination of ideas from people with different perspectives. Before it became common for people to receive degrees in areas of study that relate specifically to some aspect of user experience such as interaction design, people often came to user experience professions from software engineering. Others had graphic design or technical publications backgrounds, as I did. And these are just a few of the more common professional paths to user experience.

“The primary requisites for becoming an interaction designer are understanding how people accomplish their goals and having good judgment about how to facilitate their doing so—including devising and communicating efficient workflows, employing or innovating easy-to-use interaction models, designing coherent user interfaces, and removing barriers that impede usability. Many different life journeys can bestow these capabilities. You also need to be able to communicate your design ideas effectively. As someone with technical skills, you can probably do that by creating interactive prototypes, which is a big plus.”

“As you’ve noticed, people working in interaction design have a wide range of backgrounds. It’s one of the reasons it is such an exciting field!” Peter observes.

“There is totally room for people with MIS backgrounds,” says Dave. “Understanding information and technology and their nexus of convergence is a core space within interaction design. I think you will find a lot of people with MIS, Library and Information Science (LIS), or straight up Information Technology (IT) backgrounds who have moved into interaction design with great success. The computer science part of your background would be incredibly helpful, because it would allow you to prototype your ideas yourself—something many interaction designers with visual design, information architecture, or project management backgrounds have not been able to do.”

“I suppose the proper response is: It all depends,” offers Leo. “Of course, the fields of Human Computer Interaction (HCI), interaction design, and user experience can benefit from enlightened individuals with a keen interest in technology! There is a real, ongoing need in the world of interaction design for individuals who are both well-versed in the back-end technicalities and have a sensitivity to the human side of the equation,” Leo observes. “The question back to you is: What interests you about this field where you want to apply your background?

“Absolutely!” declares Janet. “I have a PhD in Computer Science (CS) and specialized in information visualization. I was always especially interested in the human side of making high-quality visualizations. But it was not until I read Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things after graduate school that I knew what I wanted to do with my career. Good for you for discovering this area of interest while still an undergraduate!

“Yes, those of us from the technical side are outnumbered, but we have the wonderful, wonderful ability to speak to those on both sides of a project team. We can talk tech, and we can talk design. Not many people can do this. Take advantage of your technical skill.”

Learning What You Need to Know: Courses and Books

“Because user experience is such a broad field, build on the elements of your current courses that you enjoy,” Peter suggests. “Within MIS, there should be scope to explore visual design, psychology—particularly around interpreting information and decision making—and interaction design. As you develop a broad understanding of the field, you will be able to identify more specific areas to explore and the courses that will support you in that exploration.”

Dave offers this advice: “If I were you, I would attend the Cooper Practicum in Interaction Design. It is really geared toward people just like you. Further, there are two courses they offer as followups: Documenting Design and Visual Design. And they just added an Evaluating Design course as well. If you took all of these courses, you would be well on your way. One of the reasons I recommend Cooper’s courses is that they offer two weeks of intensive coursework, focusing on the skills interaction designers need, without the distractions of corporate conferences like those organized by UIE, Adaptive Path, and the Nielsen Norman Group. I am not putting down their courses, but for your needs as you’ve expressed them, the Cooper course is more appropriate.

“Robert Reimann—co-author of About Face 3.0, with Alan Cooper and David Cronin—just brilliantly summarized the skills you need as an interaction designer on the IxDA Discussion List, as follows:

  1. ‘user research—observation to generate design ideas
  2. modeling your research data
  3. converting research data to designs
  4. drawing, sketching, and other ideation techniques
  5. theory of user interface (UI) design—patterns, affordances, navigation, memory
  6. prototyping
  7. evaluating design’

“You should read About Face 3.0 as a followup to The Design of Everyday Things. If there is something that excites you in the content of the training courses of other corporations, I would push you toward either the UIE or the Adaptive Path programs.”

“It is not so much the courses you take, as the expertise you display when you are speaking with a potential client or employer,” says Janet. “You need to start building a good portfolio. What type of work would you like to do when you get out of school? If you’re not doing that type of work in school, devise your own projects and create quality solutions you can present in your portfolio.

“In addition to your studies, I suggest your reading Secrets of the Millionaire Mind by T. Harv Eker and Awaken the Giant Within by Tony Robbins. It is what is in your mind, not what classes you have taken. You have your own unique gifts. Find them and use them. It is not about fitting in with everyone else. It is about what makes you unique and special as an interaction design professional. Find your strengths.”

“Reading books like The Design of Everyday Things is great for getting a broad understanding of how people interact with designed objects,” Peter recommends. “First, I’d advise you to start spending some time with designers to get an understanding of how they think about problems. Develop your own understanding of design approaches by being critical about the sites and applications you use, talking about what you expect of them, and how they help or hinder you in achieving your goals.”

“I’ve enjoyed reading Information Visualization: Perception for Design by Colin Ware, which is a great survey book on key elements of the human perception system that inform design,” says Leo. “You can’t go wrong reading Designing Interactions by Bill Moggridge. I also had fun reading The Myths of Innovation by Scott Berkun, which provided insights into how major shifts in our technology landscape really occur. And, of course, About Face 3.0: The Essentials of Interaction Design by Alan Cooper, Robert Reimann, and David Cronin is a great introductory text to the process of interaction design.”

Janet suggests, “I recommend your reading the following resources:

  • anything by Don Norman
  • Bruce ‘Tog’ Tognazzini’s Web site, AskTog
  • Nielsen Norman Group Web site—Yes, Norman, as in Don Norman. There is much good, free information here.
  • The Inmates Are Running The Asylum by Alan Cooper—This book particularly talks about how technical people are involved in interaction design on projects. Be forewarned, he insults technical people like you and me—and himself, for that matter—but he is mostly right about things.
  • my Ask UXmatters column from December 2008, “Self-Education in UX and Working with User Research Data”—This column includes some great resources for getting started in user experience.

“Also, there is a great deal of good, free information on blogs such as those written by some of our UXmatters authors:

“There are so many books out there, it’s hard to decide what to recommend!” says Peter. “Universal Principles of Design by William Lidwell, Kritina Holden, and Jill Butler is great; as is Usability for the Web: Designing Web Sites That Work by Tom Brinck and Darren Gergle. I’m sure our readers will be able to suggest other titles! And all the very best of luck!” 


Berkun, Scott. The Myths of Innovation. Sebastopol, California: O’Reilly, 2007.

Brinck, Tom, and Darren Gergle. Usability for the Web: Designing Web Sites That Work. San Francisco: Morgan Kaufmann, 2002.

Cooper, Alan, Robert Reimann, and David Cronin. About Face 3.0: The Essentials of Interaction Design. Indianapolis: John Wiley & Sons, 2007.

Cooper, Alan. The Inmates are Running the Asylum. Indianapolis: Sams, 2004.

Eker, T. Harv. Secrets of the Millionaire Mind: Mastering the Inner Game of Wealth. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.

Lidwell, William, Kritina Holden, and Jill Butler. Universal Principles of Design. Gloucester, Massachusetts: Rockport Publishers, 2003.

Moggridge, Bill. Designing Interactions. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2006.

Norman, Donald. The Design of Everyday Things. New York: Basic Books, 2002.

Robbins, Anthony. Awaken the Giant Within: How to Take Immediate Control of Your Mental, Emotional, Physical, and Financial Destiny. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.

Ware, Colin. Information Visualization: Perception for Design. San Francisco: Elsevier Science & Technology Books, 2004.

Product Manager at Tom Sawyer Software

Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, USA

Janet M. SixDr. Janet M. Six helps companies design easier-to-use products within their financial, time, and technical constraints. For her research in information visualization, Janet was awarded the University of Texas at Dallas Jonsson School of Engineering Computer Science Dissertation of the Year Award. She was also awarded the prestigious IEEE Dallas Section 2003 Outstanding Young Engineer Award. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Graph Algorithms and Applications and the Kluwer International Series in Engineering and Computer Science. The proceedings of conferences on Graph Drawing, Information Visualization, and Algorithm Engineering and Experiments have also included the results of her research.  Read More

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