Process, Not Portfolio

Client Matters

Getting experience

A column by Whitney Hess
October 5, 2009

Not long after I went independent, a friend who works at a well-known global advertising agency asked if I would be interested in helping out on a high-profile Web site redesign project. I was pretty stoked. He suggested I come in to meet his team. After meeting with the lead developer and project manager, I was told they wanted to bring me on. All I had to do was to meet the creative director.

When he finally got a chance to sit down with me, the first thing he asked was something I wasn’t prepared for: “Can I see your portfolio?”

I hadn’t brought one. “I can give you the URL,” I said. We weren’t near a computer.

His glassy response: “I’m not sure what we have to discuss if I can’t see your work.” And with that he asked that we reschedule for a time when I could come back with my book. Then he left.

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The truth is, I do have a book—a portfolio. It’s a pretty heavy binder actually, and I don’t like carrying it around. And the last time I had used it was almost two years prior when I was applying for my last full-time job. When interviewing for all the freelance work I had been doing since then, I had never needed to show it, and I hadn’t kept it updated.

A week later, I went back to meet with the creative director, with my portfolio in my arms, and walked him through my deliverables, one by one. I had work that dated all the way back to 2005—my first projects out of college. But he didn’t see anything that appeared similar to the project I was interviewing for—so, as a result, I didn’t end up getting the job.

At the time, I was pretty confused. Does a portfolio really encapsulate all that I am as a designer? Why didn’t I know better than to go in unprepared? Why hadn’t I sold the work well enough for him to see how valuable I would be to his team?

The Process Is You

Now, almost a year later, I have done more than 50 pitches to potential clients. Seventeen of them became paying clients. And I didn’t win a single one of these gigs because of the caliber of my portfolio.

I win clients over with my process. Or to put it another way, I demonstrate that I am conscious of process to win them over.

Now, when I have a meeting with a prospective client, I don’t show my resumé and go through the whole chronology of my previous work. A lot of my projects are showcased in my online portfolio, so if they’re curious to see what I’ve done before, they can have a gander. Instead, I focus the discussion on a single project—one that involved a problem that is similar to the one they are facing—and I walk through the process I used to help discover the best solution.

I’ve gotten pretty comfortable doing this spiel. I start off by setting the stage: This is who my previous client was. When we started, these were their goals; their challenges. Then, while I go through each deliverable for the project, I recount the evolution of how I analyzed the problem space, identified the areas of opportunity, and facilitated the planning of a holistic design solution. As I describe how the techniques I used sparked insights that influenced the design, I can see their eyes light up.

Instead of prospective clients’ looking at a wireframe in a portfolio and saying, That’s what I want our site to look like, they start wondering what their process might look like. Convincing clients that they are unique snowflakes who deserve a unique approach is ultimately what will land you the gigs.

I asked some fellow independents whether they have had similar experiences. Robert Gorell concurs, “The fact that I’ve had a steady string of work for the past eight months with only a zombie blog and two finished sites—not including my own—is testament to the validity of your thesis.”

It’s like the old adage that the cobbler’s children have no shoes. Some of the best in the business don’t put their energy into perfecting their portfolios, because they’re busy working on other people’s stuff—or they simply don’t see the benefit of it.

Rather than just showing their work, many UX professionals find it’s the way they do things that is the most important to communicate. Matt Nish-Lapidus, formerly self-employed and now a UX consultant at nForm, told me, “When pitching a project, I spend a lot of time talking about how I work—the tools in my toolbox, research methods, deliverables—and how I can work with the prospective client to help them understand and solve their own problems.”

That has always been my personal approach, but there are times when clients expect to see a portfolio, particularly if they are very used to using them as a litmus test—such as with the creative director I mentioned earlier. But should a portfolio have so much weight when deciding to hire a UX professional?

“At some point—and I don’t know when—it became standard operating procedure for [UX designers] to have to show portfolios of their work at interviews,” said independent consultant Gabby Hon. “But all that tells an interviewer is that you know how to use Visio or OmniGraffle or InDesign and that you do typical things like show page states or how you annotate.”

But Will Evans, both as an independent consultant and director of experience design at Twin Technologies, sees the value of a portfolio as something deeper than demonstrating mastery of deliverables. “As a director of user experience, I won’t even consider a UX [professional] without a portfolio,” he said. “I don’t care about their process, because I will give them one. I want to see a complete walkthrough from problem setting through final design, with an ability to talk through every aspect of how they arrived at a final solution. The final solution matters, but only in the context of how they arrived there.”

Evans stresses that it is, in fact, the how not the what that is of greatest importance to him, but not as an indication of future behavior. Instead, it is a UX professional’s deep understanding of design thinking that helps separate the wheat from the chaff—and the portfolio is Evans’s favored prop for that discussion.

Still, some people find a focus on the end product, the final solution, a bit troublesome. “Once consultants overly commodify their work—the idiosyncratic end results of their process,” said Gorell, “the conversation changes to whether you’re the right vendor for them to purchase from the proverbial vending machine.”

Being the right person for the job shouldn’t hinge on what you have done before, but rather on how you would approach a problem now. A great designer learns from what she has done before, so brings a new set of tools to each new project she faces.

A Flexible Foundation

For this discussion, it is important to distinguish between two terms people often use interchangeably—and inappropriately: process and methodology. In Jared Spool’s presentation titled, “Journey to the Center of Design,” he clarifies the difference between them: A process is simply a series of steps we follow to accomplish something, while a methodology is a predefined process we repeat.

Let me be clear: I do not use a specific methodology on all of my projects. I firmly believe there is no one-size-fits-all approach to every problem—in other words, a methodology. Instead, it’s up to me to determine which activities to conduct and which deliverables to produce in any given situation. The fact that I am aware of the various possible approaches and trust in the power of my process is what I believe sets me apart from other candidates and convinces potential clients I would be a valuable asset to their team.

Chris Fahey, a founder and principal of Behavior Design, puts it succinctly: “We are lately learning that designers absolutely need to be able to change their minds when a methodology isn’t serving them. In fact, the greatest designers are those who can change their minds exceptionally well.”

That is a notion I firmly stand behind. What a portfolio does not show a prospective client is how things got done—what obstacles you overcame and what tools you used to accomplish your goals. It’s the ability to be flexible, roll with the punches, and stay calm along that way that truly sets a candidate above the rest.

Fahey continues, “From an agency perspective, I’d say both process and portfolio have been cited as the winning factor for successful proposals, but increasingly it’s been paramount to show that our process is flexible. Not that we have a process, but that we can define a clever, appropriate, and powerful new process for each individual client’s needs. Kind of like a process portfolio.”

Fahey is not implying that he intends to let his prospective clients choose which process he’ll use to successfully complete the work, but simply that his agency has had a variety of experience and can easily adapt to the situation at hand.

Independent consultant Paul Hibbitts puts a strong emphasis on his flexibility and ever-growing toolbox when pitching prospective clients. “I talk more about being able to integrate various tools and methods into [the company’s] own existing process for the project in question. A core message is how I will strive to [integrate] the needed steps and techniques…effectively into their existing processes, while still delivering the needed results.”

Storytelling Sells

When other UX consultants and people who are getting into the field ask me for advice on how to get clients, I always say, “Process, not portfolio.” It’s a shorthand way of saying something that’s actually much more complex. The winning factor isn’t just that you understand your process, but more that you can communicate how it works.

“I don’t know if it’s so much my process, but the fact that, for the deliverables I present, I have cohesive stories for each one,” said Gabby Hon. “How the project came to be, how I approached the work, challenges, successes, things I learned.... The real test always comes when you’re asked about the work you’re showing: Why did you put that button there? What happens when a user clicks? It’s here that the ability to construct a narrative about not only your work as product, but your thought process becomes the real key to landing any gig, freelance or full time.”

Being a clear communicator and being able to make the prospective client believe in your ability to do the work is a key factor in whether you will land the gig. Too much fluff and not enough depth and context surely won’t convince them of the gravity of your work.

Have your talking points prepared, so you can recount the aha! moments that occurred on a project and how the design activities you conducted played a role. Remember why you made certain choices and be able to put your reasons in human terms—how the solution affected the team, the users, the bottom line.

The conversation shouldn’t just be about the work, but about the impact of the work. The reason I’m so opposed to the portfolio’s being the main focal point is because the final design for a project is not the final outcome, and it shouldn’t be treasured as such. Ultimately, it is how a holistic product or service impacted people’s lives that is the true measure of a designer’s talent and worth.

You Have to Start Somewhere

While your portfolio might not provide an appropriate indication of your merit, it often does help you get your foot in the door—if your reputation doesn’t proceed you. I spend a lot of time promoting myself and my thinking—largely to overcome this hurdle—and I have been successful in landing new clients as a result. But for those just starting out, it does take some time to build a trusted name.

Mary Shaw, a UX consultant and copywriter agrees: “The more experience you have, the easier it is to get jobs by walking people through your process on a past project. But for brand new clients who have never heard of you before, I think you have to have something that clearly demonstrates you know how to create UX deliverables.”

“Unfortunately, for those just getting started, the only way a client can tell if a designer has that ability is to look at their track record,” admits Chris Fahey. “A designer without a track record will have a hard time proving they can solve unique design and process challenges and that they can be trusted to figure out what needs to be done next on a project.”

Personality Is a Must

What is more attractive to a prospective client: outer beauty or inner beauty? In UX design, I see a portfolio as analogous to outer beauty. Sure, it looks pretty, but how can the client know if there’s really anything to back it up. Ultimately, does a company want to work with someone who merely has a great track record—or someone they can actually get along with?

Andrew Hinton, a lead information architect at Vanguard, puts it clearly: “Coming across as a personable professional—and having a solid reputation as someone with the necessary emotional intelligence to get along with clients or teammates—is extremely important.” Any professional in any field would agree that being able to gel with the team you are joining is essential—and that has nothing to do with either process or portfolio.

“I’m not so sure it’s a one-trumps-the-other thing,” says Michael Carvin, a senior associate in user experience at Trellist. “I have always felt personality and process and portfolio act as a triumvirate.”

But if your strength of will, passion for your work, eagerness to make a difference in people’s lives, adaptability, and diplomacy aren’t hugely apparent, will the prospective client take the risk of hiring you just because of how qualified you are to handle the gig?

“Whether they’re conscious of it or not, people make hiring decisions based on personality as much as anything else,” says Hinton. “Ultimately, the gut reaction someone has to your personal presence is a huge factor, and it can easily trump all evidence of your competence.”

So, where should you spend your energy? While a stunning portfolio might get you in the door, and a thoughtful explanation of the process you used might woo prospective clients, your personality is what they’ll have to face on a daily basis. Be prepared, practice your pitch, demonstrate the importance of what you have done and how you did it—but most of all, be you. Because, after all, if your personalities don’t mesh, none of the rest even matters. Don’t forget: Even more important than your winning them over is their winning you for their project. If a prospective client is more interested in what you do than how you do it, chances are you won’t be able to make much of an impact there. Save yourself for those clients who really get it. 

Empathy and Leadership Coaching at Vicarious Partners

User Experience Design Consultant

New York, New York, USA

Whitney HessBased in New York City, Whitney is an independent UX design consultant. She helps make stuff easy and pleasurable to use. Whitney is a strategic partner with Happy Cog and UX consultant for boxee, among other startups, agencies, and major corporations. Prior to going independent, she was on the design team at Liquidnet. Previously, she was an interaction designer at the marketing agencies Digitas and Tribal DDB, where her clients included American Express, The New York Times, Allstate, Claritin, Tropicana, and EarthLink. Though she began her higher education in computer science, Whitney received a Bachelor of Arts in Professional Writing and a Master’s degree in Human-Computer Interaction from Carnegie Mellon University.  Read More

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