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Crafting a UX Portfolio

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A column by Janet M. Six
October 21, 2019

In this month’s edition of Ask UXmatters, our panel of UX experts discusses how to craft a UX portfolio. One panelist considers hiring managers’ expectations for the portfolios of applicants to design-management roles, as well as other specific UX roles. As a hiring manager himself, he also explores what he looks for in a candidate’s portfolio, discussing the importance of telling the right story about your experience and offering several story formats.

Another panelist describes how important it is to show your thought process and demonstrate how you accomplished the work you show in your portfolio. Finally, our panelists describe some tools and methods that they find useful in building their UX design portfolio.

Every month in my column Ask UXmatters, a panel of UX experts answers our readers’ questions about a broad range of user experience matters. To get answers to your own questions about UX strategy, design, user research, or any other topic of interest to UX professionals in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, please send your questions to: [email protected].

The following experts have contributed answers to this month’s edition of Ask UXmatters:

  • Warren Croce—Lead UX Designer at Staples, Inc.; Principal at Warren Croce Design
  • Leo Frishberg—Senior Manager, User Experience, at Home Depot Quote Center; Principal at Phase II
  • Adrian Howard—Generalizing Specialist in Agile/UX
  • Andrew Wirtanen—Lead Designer at Citrix

Q: Do you have recommendations on how to prepare a UX portfolio?—from a UXmatters reader

“Crafting your UX portfolio can be incredibly challenging,” replies Leo. “About four years ago, when I started looking for a different job, I found that I was expected to have a portfolio. Several things were weird about that expectation, as follows:

  1. I had been a design manager for the previous several years. What would I show in my portfolio? PowerPoint decks and email messages? Why were companies expecting management-level applicants to have design portfolios?
  2. I have more than 30 years of experience. What, exactly, would show best in my portfolio? Web-site designs? Business strategies? Organization designs?
  3. How should I present my experience in the form of a portfolio? For example, what imagery would best communicate my contributions to a company’s decision not to proceed on an entire product direction?

“I share these thoughts because they illustrate how challenging it is to build a portfolio—regardless of your background or what you bring to a job application. While these particular thoughts are peculiar to my journey, I’ve had dozens of conversations this year with other UX professionals who are struggling with the same questions.

“Before I offer some ideas about what I, as a hiring manager, look for in a candidate’s portfolio, let’s consider the question of whether a portfolio is even a suitable artifact for a team to request in the first place. A second meta-concern is: what exactly is a team looking for that candidates can adapt their portfolios to address? As you’ve probably already discovered, a quick search on Twitter or another social-media application quickly reveals conflicting notions about what a great portfolio comprises.

“I believe that having a portfolio is a requirement, regardless of your level of experience. However, I expect very different content from a candidate who is just starting out versus one with ten or more years of experience—and from one who is applying for a design position rather than a research or managerial position.

“So I’ll add my thoughts to the conversation and, hopefully, my suggestions will resonate with you. Your portfolio, first and foremost, must tell a story without your being present. That is the biggest challenge of designing a portfolio. No matter whether you are an interaction designer, a visual designer, a UX researcher, or a program manager, your portfolio must reflect your work, your contributions to your organization, and your authentic point of view.”

Tailoring Your Profile to a Particular Job

“Because every position you apply for could be different, many suggest that you need a way to craft a personalized or customized portfolio for every job that you apply for,” continues Leo. “Some propose creating a PDF version of your portfolio that lets you put together just the pieces that matter for a particular target team. But this presupposes that you know—or the hiring team has been forthcoming with information about—what the team is specifically looking for.

“For my portfolio, I constructed a Web site using a component that lets visitors filter my work based on categories that I presumed would be of interest to them. In any event, creating a component-based portfolio is probably a good way to make it as flexible as is necessary to tell the right story.”

Presenting Information in a Consistent Sequence

“Just as there are dozens of different story formats, so there are different ways of telling your work-experience story,” suggests Leo. “I use a specific sequence of information—not only in my portfolio but also in my communications with stakeholders in my day-to-day work. Using this model, the information about each of your example projects should comprise the following sections:

  1. State the business problem you were asked to solve. This can be the most succinct part of the portfolio—perhaps a short paragraph or an image would be sufficient.
  2. Show your solution. I show the solution as the second piece of the story for several specific reasons. The audience for your portfolio, a harried hiring manager who is looking at multiple candidates’ portfolios, might want to take a quick glance first, before getting into the details. By communicating a problem statement and your solution up front, you can neatly demonstrate your ability to present a short form of the story.
  3. Show your process. Every hiring team I’ve ever interviewed with—or participated in—wants to understand the candidate’s thinking process. How did you come up with that solution? What were your false starts? Why did you abandon them and instead pursue the course you did? Having already presented the solution in Step 2 makes telling this part of the story much easier. Show and tell this story succinctly. This is the most difficult part of the portfolio to create. How much detail should you provide versus keeping the story line moving along?
  4. Show the business value. This information bookends the first step in a different way from the design solution. Talk about how long things took—or how little time they took; who was on the team—and what your specific contributions were; and the outcomes that resulted from the solution—for example, improved visitor statistics or reduced costs of operations—among other possibilities. Even if your work was just a school project, there is always a value proposition you can speak to in this section. The hiring team is looking for your understanding of how your work fits into a larger picture. This fourth step is your opportunity to tell that part of the story.

“Making every portfolio example fit the same storytelling format makes reviewing your portfolio much easier for the hiring team. Once hiring-team members have deciphered your narrative structure, they can quickly progress through all of your examples, scanning for the elements of interest to them and being able to find them quickly.”

Telling Your Stories in Words and Pictures

“Use both words and pictures to tell your stories,” advises Leo. “Even if your work is not specifically about visual design, there is always an image that captures what you’re describing. Of course, your previous employers’ confidentiality agreements might not permit you to show images of your work, or you might not have a perfect photograph of your whiteboard sketches. In certain cases, it’s okay to use stock imagery—with the appropriate licensing—but you must declare that these images are merely illustrative and explain why you can’t show real images. An image of Post-it notes on a wall is illustrative of an affinity-diagramming process, even if the photo you use isn’t specific to one of your own sessions. Be clear that you’re using the image to tell a story because you don’t have permission—or access—to show the real stuff.

“Use as few words as necessary to tell the story. This is perhaps the most difficult part of all: how to move the narrative from the business problem to business value using the least verbiage possible.”

Show Your Thought Process

“In some respects, what a UX portfolio should consist of depends on your experience,” answers Warren. “For example, if you are new to User Experience, I wouldn’t expect a broad range of examples. Naturally, as you gain experience, the work in your portfolio will become more varied. However, regardless of your experience, I always want to see how you think. Articulate the problem you were trying to solve and what steps you took to get from A to B. I want to see sketches and a description of the process. If I look at a portfolio and all I see are the shiny final comps, it puts me off. Don’t worry so much about showing a large quantity of work—and, by that, I mean showing more than six projects if you have some experience under your belt. Quality is far more important.”

“The worst portfolios present a series of pictures from final projects,” replies Adrian. “They don’t tell me what the candidate did or didn’t do on the project. They don’t tell me how the work came about. They don’t tell me the constraints. They don’t tell me how the candidate worked with the rest of the team to achieve the results. They don’t tell me about things they tried that didn’t work. They don’t tell me what the impact of the work was.

“The best portfolios show me how the candidate works and the kind of work they do. They show the rough sketches and the dead ends. They demonstrate how the candidate dealt with time, technical, and business constraints. They explain how they worked with the product team to deliver the final product. They tell me about both the failures and the successes. They show how the product actually impacted the business.

“Bad portfolios show me pictures. Great portfolios tell me stories.”

Tools and Methods

“As far as tools go, I built my own portfolio with WordPress,” adds Warren. “I’m not a good coder, but I do like the ability to mess around—and mess things up—if I want to. I also like that WordPress can do whatever you want to do with its world of plug-ins.

“I would also recommend Squarespace if you don’t want to do any coding or don’t need a lot of features. Of course, building your portfolio from scratch is always impressive if you’re a UX designer. Whatever you do, make sure it’s responsive!”

“One of the most important things you can do is to continuously document your work,” answers Andrew. “You can do this by maintaining a Career-Management Document or a Career-Project Diary. If you can refer to documentation on everything you’ve worked on, it will be a lot easier to build your UX portfolio.

“When preparing your portfolio, you should follow a process that is similar to the way you would design a product. There are three different users of your portfolio: human resources, the hiring manager, and a peer panel.

“Each of these categories of people looks for different things when evaluating your portfolio. Human resources looks for skills that match the job description. The hiring manager is interested in your thought process. Finally, the peer panel wants to make sure you’d be a good fit for the team.” 

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. Janet is the Managing Editor of UXmatters.  Read More

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