Never Trust a Skinny Chef

February 11, 2014

There’s an old saying that you should never trust a skinny chef. The sentiment behind this tongue-in-cheek reference to a chef’s inability to resist his own delicious food applies to most professions. Would you want to hire a mechanic with a broken car or a financial planner with loads of debt? Likely not. Nor would one be likely to hire a UX professional with a confusing resume or a lackluster portfolio.

Few people specialize in both user experience and job placement, but that’s my job. I’m primarily a UX research consultant, but I also review UX candidates for a talent agency—analyzing skill levels, providing portfolio feedback, and helping to determine what roles people would best fit. While I’ve met many qualified UX professionals, in some cases, I would have had no idea of their skills from reviewing their resumes and portfolios. Experienced and talented UX professionals had resumes and portfolios that had confusing layouts, failed to provide proper context for their work, prioritized work samples that did’t demonstrate their strengths or their passions, or just plain did’t demonstrate their capabilities. In short, these resumes and portfolios provided a poor user experience.

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Based on the resumes and portfolios that I’ve reviewed, it’s clear that many UX professionals get lost when it comes to presenting themselves and their work. They struggle with deciding what deliverables to show or how to describe their particular role on a project.

But, luckily, UX professionals already have a set of skills to draw on that should enable them to present themselves effectively when applying for new job opportunities. The tenets of user-centered design guide our project work every day, and each of us probably leverages specific best practices to make our project work as effective and efficient as possible. So, let’s take a look at some of the UX best practices that we can apply in creating successful resumes and portfolios. The same UX best practices that entice new users can entice potential employers as well:

  • user research—Take users’ context of use into consideration when defining personas to represent them.
  • content strategy—Make a comprehensive list of all existing content and weed out the ROT—content that is redundant, outdated, or trivial.
  • UI design—Visually highlight one core component or piece of information.
  • usability testing—Follow the 5-user golden rule to maximize your usability-testing efforts.

As a UX professional, whether you are actively searching for a full-time, in-house role; looking for freelance work; or responding to a request for proposal for consulting work, you need to apply these UX best practices to your resume, portfolio, and communications.

User Research: Getting to Know Users and Their Context

Everyone in the UX industry can probably agree that the key to designing a great user experience is gaining a thorough understanding of the people for whom we’re designing it. While there have been some debates about the best way to describe users and personas have been taking a bit of a hit lately, I’m in the camp that believes personas can be very useful when one does them right. My rule for doing personas right is to make sure that I identify and consider the context surrounding how people will use what I create.

Taking a step back, a persona’s purpose is to aid us in understanding users, so we can make good product design decisions. While information such as a persona’s favorite color or breakfast routine can add personality, it’s more important to understand how, where, and when your users will interact with a product.

Consider this example from an email platform that I once worked on: One of our personas comprised the owners of bricks-and-mortar businesses such as flower shops and bakeries, who usually wrote email messages at their shop. We found that this meant they were extremely likely to be interrupted by a customer, phone call, or employee question in the middle of writing a message. They would often lose their work when they left the page to attend to whatever other task called their attention away, which was hugely frustrating. We were able to prioritize creating new tools to address that issue, and customer satisfaction went up immensely. That seemingly insignificant context detail turned into a guiding principle for a complete redesign and was a major driver of success.

Designing your resume and portfolio is no different. In this case, the primary user is the prospective employer—whether that is a recruiter, a hiring manager, or a client soliciting your services. Understanding the context in which they’ll be viewing you and your online deliverables can help you to set your expectations appropriately and deliver the key information that they need in the best way.

Here are a few of my observations about prospective employers: First, people seeking UX professionals are almost universally pressed for time; often under pressure to find the right fit as soon as possible. Second, most talent-seekers are not intimately familiar with the nuances of UX roles. Individual clients are notorious for misunderstanding user experience, and when we’re applying directly to a company, it is often an HR staffer or a specialized recruiter who first sees our work, neither of whom usually have a background in user experience. As UX professionals, many of us can attest to the frustration of companies recruiting us for roles that don’t suit us, and recruiters experience frustrations finding UX talent as well.

We can use the power of the Internet to better understand particular interviewers. Although most of us probably won’t be able to survey interviewers or watch them interview someone else, we can unleash our inner detective. When applying to a specific company, go to their site and to job-review sites to find out about their culture, products, and projects. Identify your interviewer and learn more about his or her background, needs, and interests on LinkedIn, Twitter, or a personal blog. Since it’s rare for you to have only one target user, take the opportunity to learn as much as you can about all of them, and use that knowledge to your advantage. Mentioning a shared interest or a personal fact helps you to connect with interviewers, demonstrates your ability to perform research, shows your attention to detail, and lets you demonstrate empathy.

Content Strategy: Analyzing the Content

Once you’be carefully considered your audience and created a context-rich persona, it’s time to start creating or updating your deliverables: your resumes and portfolios. Many Web content projects begin with a content audit to document all of the content on a site. When working on your resumes, portfolios, and Web site, an audit lets you take an inventory of your deliverables, documents, and notes, Starting with a comprehensive list of everything you want to include in those documents makes it easier to analyze our work, identify the most important pieces, and spot and remove the ROT—redundant, outdated, or trivial content.

When you’re pulling together content you’be already created, deciding what pieces of work to show can be tricky, especially for those of us who specialize in research or strategy. I frequently get questions about what a portfolio should include, whether the format matters, and how interactive it should be. There is no one right answer, but every UX professional should have some kind of visual representation of their work. This visual representation could be as simple as a graph of survey results or annotated screenshots of the final product. Even user researchers who have never created a comp can use visuals to represent their work. Show persona documentation, photos of a focus group or participatory design session, or snapshots of research plans or reports. Images are easier to digest and help recruiters to quickly understand what types of work you do and don’t do.

UX professionals must also highlight their personal success metrics to clarify their value to non-UX-minded recruiters. Perhaps you streamlined the design process and were able to get a product to market much faster than expected or customer retention soared after your Web-site redesign launched. Clearly defining your challenges and how you were able to make things better lets you speak a language that everyone can understand, without needing any in-depth technical or UX knowledge.

The easiest way I’ve found to document and analyze my work is to keep an ongoing log of my projects with high-level descriptions of my tasks and their outcomes, using the same structure as a typical content audit. I make the listing as comprehensive as possible and note whether I’ve already included something in my portfolio. When it’s time to update my resume or portfolio, I quickly scan the document to see what new items I might want to highlight and can quickly see whether something overlaps too much with a previous project. While this log can sometimes be a pain to keep up, it helps me to display my best work. Figure 1 shows the content audit I prepared when creating my resume and portfolio.

Figure 1—My personal content audit
My personal content audit

UX Design Matters, No Matter What Your Niche

Once you have a plan for everything that you want to share with potential employers, it’s time to think about how to present that information. Think of UX skills as though they are calls to action on a Web page. You want to prioritize your skills and visually highlight just one thing in your resume and portfolio: the kind of work you do best and actually want to do.

Keep your user in mind: a busy, non-UX-minded recruiter. What does he or she need to know? At first glance, recruiters just need know whether you have the basic qualifications for the role they are trying to fill. If they need someone who can create wireframes and a resume doesn’t make that capability immediately clear, recruiters will move on to someone else’s resume. Seeing the key skillsets they’re looking for right away entices them to dig further to see whether you have other qualifications for a role such as complementary skills or whether your personality would be a good fit.

It’s often at this point that there is a disconnect between UX talent and recruiters. Many job applicants have gotten into the habit of listing every type of work or every project they’be ever done, even when they’be transitioned careers or switched focuses within an industry. Time-pressed recruiters often assume that applicants would want to or should focus on whatever types of work appear most frequently, not the work you’be done most recently, so they often end up targeting people for roles that include skills they’re no longer practicing or don’t want to do. To help avoid that confusion and ensure that recruiters contact you only for roles that you’d want, you need to highlight not just what you can do, but what you actually want to be doing.

In short, an applicant’s main goal should be to make it immediately clear what he or she can do well and wants to continue doing. To ensure full understanding of your skills, be sure to specify the design activities upon which you routinely rely. For example, instead of writing, “Led project X from conception to launch,” in your resume, elaborate. Explain exactly what the job entailed. For example: Led project X from conception to launch.

  • Led initial brainstorming sessions.
  • Conducted user interviews, then created personas and scenarios.
  • Mocked up all of the initial ideas in Balsamiq.
  • Ran and analyzed remote, moderated usability tests.

When it comes to portfolios, keep in mind that your users do not understand the context of your projects. Even if the hiring manager knows how to create wireframes, she might struggle in trying to interpret a specific set of wireframes. To ensure that recruiters have the context they need, annotate, provide explanations, and describe how you made your final design decisions. Recruiters and hiring managers want to understand what you did, how you did it, and why—and even the most beautiful wireframe, comp, or prototype isn’t going to tell that story.

One especially effective model for capturing one’s skillset is the broken comb, which is a take on the more traditional T-shaped model. Since many UX professionals’ work spans a wide range of niche skills, but they might have varying levels of expertise in those various skills, and the resulting graph resembles a big comb with tines of various lengths. You could make this broken comb into a pretty graphic, but it’s just as effective when it’s a simple bar graph. My broken comb was easy to create in PowerPoint.

Figure 2—My broken comb
My broken comb

Usability Testing: Getting Feedback

Now that you’be considered your users, identified your pieces of data, and created a logical presentation of your strongest work, it’s tempting to just start sending out links to your resume and portfolio with abandon. But there’s one more step you should take first. As with any UX project, getting user feedback is absolutely critical to your success. It’s not always easy to garner feedback on our personal work, but I highly recommend that you involve five users—just as you would in maximizing your research and testing efforts.

We know that, if a Web site is difficult to use or read, has bad content, or doesn’t quickly and clearly convey its value, people leave. This is also true of a resume or portfolio. Applicants have an instant to make a good impression on a recruiter. A confusing layout or even a simple spelling error is likely to make a recruiter pass over any UX professional, no matter how good his work or how impressive her experience.

Others spot things that we do not. It could be something like your needing to add more detail to your annotations, but it could also be major gaffe like your misspelling your own name. Either way, it’s better to gather suggestions and make changes before submitting your resume and portfolio for your dream role than to have a recruiter overlook you for something you could have easily changed.

While the UX world calls for testing with representative users, it’s safe to say that most of us don’t have access to a set of recruiters with extra time on their hands. However, we can ask our friends, family, and trusted colleagues to provide honest feedback. I’ve shared my resume with my boyfriend, former and current UX colleagues, a writer friend, and my Dad to get their feedback. Each of them had a different perspective and suggested tweaks that I wouldn’t have considered on my own. Remembering that our target audience might not fully understand the nuances of user experience, it can be especially helpful to get feedback from your connections outside the UX industry.

Plus, it can be beneficial to ask for feedback during or after a job screening or interview. Recruiters may be willing to provide general feedback on your presentation style, while HR directors or clients may be able to offer insights on particular skillsets. Even if someone else gets hired for a role, your asking for feedback signals to a company that you are someone who is interested in improving, and they may, as a consequence, consider you for future roles.

Regardless of where feedback comes from, you can bet that getting a few different viewpoints on your resume and portfolio will help you to catch errors and create the best possible representation of your skills and abilities.

Finding Your Match

Finding the perfect UX job doesn’t need to be a painful process. Just like any client project, doing user research, focusing on content strategy, carefully crafting your visuals, and integrating feedback enables you to improve both your deliverables and the outcome of your job-search process. In the end, by incorporating the UX process into their job hunt, every UX professional can hope to ride off into the sunset to his or her dream job. 

President and Principal Consultant, Stockwell Strategy

Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, USA

Amanda StockwellAmanda is an experienced user experience research and strategy consultant. For the last decade, she has focused on finding innovative ways to understand users and embedding that knowledge in the design process and business strategy. Working for companies large and small, she has led teams that provided research, design, and UX strategy services. Now, she is running her own consulting practice. Amanda frequently writes and speaks about her work experience and loves helping others craft their UX career. She has a human-factors background and an engineering degree from Tufts University.  Read More

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