6 Questions to Ask Yourself When Preparing for a UX Portfolio Review

September 6, 2021

A portfolio review is a review of your body of work as a UX designer and a demonstration of your presentation skills and your ability to identify what is important to your audience. The process starts with preparing your work artifacts and planning what to say and how to say it—long before the portfolio review ever happens. This article details my process when preparing to present my own portfolio and what I look for in job candidates during such reviews.

Question 1: What is the problem the design is trying to solve?

When you’re discussing a design during a portfolio review or an interview, the first thing many interviewers look for is whether the problem you’re trying to solve is well defined. But candidates often present business goals as the problem—such as This project was a reskin—or personal goals—such as This was a class assignment. Or they completely skip over the problem and go right to the solution. Every good design starts with a clear vision of the problem you’re solving, so any discussion of a project should start with a clear problem statement. If you do not clearly articulate the problem, your audience won’t be able understand the purpose of the design, and they won’t be confident in your abilities as a UX designer.

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Every design addresses a problem that it is trying to solve. You must look past the goals of the project and identify the problem. For example, rather than This was a redesign, try saying something like this:

“Once we had collected feedback about our existing product from our users, we discovered a number of serious usability issues and got the general sense that the product looked out of date.”

A well-defined problem lays the foundation for discussing both the process and the solution. Regardless of whether it was a work project or a class project, you can articulate the problem behind the design. A good presentation of a design solution in your portfolio always starts with a clear articulation of the problem.

Question 2: How did you create the design?

Now, let’s consider a group of questions about the process a UX designer has employed in creating the design. Even if you don’t discuss these issues during your presentation, it is very likely that people would ask you these questions during the question-and-answer (Q&A) period that follows. If you have good answers to all of the questions that follow, you’ll be well prepared to handle anything that the interviewers ask you about your process during the review. Great candidates always have great answers to these questions.

How did you define the problem?

Did you conduct user interviews or usability testing? Did you do a competitive analysis or a domain and market analysis? Did you interview domain experts?

How did you identify the users?

Did you perform user interviews? Did you do other types of user research? Did you visit users on site? Did you develop personas?

How did you create the design?

What was your ideation process? Did you sketch designs? Did you follow a process of iterative design and testing and make changes over time? Did you do a competitive analysis? Did you follow design standards or use a component library?

How did you validate the design?

Did you perform internal validation through usability testing, an expert review, or beta testing?

Question 3: What was the outcome of your design effort?

The interviewers reviewing your portfolio want to know that, as a UX designer, you can produce completed work. So you need to focus on designs that are as complete as possible or, better, that ultimately resulted in a finished product. It is not uncommon for candidates to focus on the work that they feel is their most creative or innovative work—even if that design never got past the ideation stage. A better strategy is to highlight completed work, even if the design is not the most innovative in your portfolio. Those innovative conceptual designs do have a place in your portfolio, but not necessarily in a portfolio review.

Demonstrating your design as a successful, finished product is an excellent way to show that you are a capable designer. If you can, demonstrate your design in a live demo of the product. Recorded demos or screenshots of the released product are also excellent ways of demonstrating the final product.

Of course, you might not have good examples of implementations of your completed work. Sometimes projects get canceled for reasons that are out of your control and your work never makes it to a general release. Or you might not be able to demonstrate the final product because of confidentiality or licensing issues. Or you just might not have that much work experience. In such cases, you still need to show that you are capable of producing a final deliverable for a design—even if it’s only a prototype, slideware, or redlines and specs.

Interviewers do want to see innovation and creativity, but they also want to know that your work can make it through the development process. You must demonstrate the ability to deliver finished work.

Question 4: Was the design a success?

There is a saying in Pragmatic Product Management, “Your opinion, while interesting, is irrelevant.” No matter how much you like a design, your opinion is irrelevant in comparison to the impact the design has had on users and the business. If possible, you should highlight the projects in your portfolio that demonstrate a high level of success with users or customers. You could measure success through increased sales, favorable comments from customers, a high Net Promoter Score (NPS), or awards or other accolades the product has received. Use anything that demonstrates your design made the product better in measurable ways.

Even if you don’t have a good example of measurable success in your portfolio, you should still talk about how you validated the designs you’ve created. Talk about the results of usability testing, A/B testing, or feedback from users, and detail your design portfolio with before-and-after examples.

It is rare for candidates to really discuss the simple question Was the design a success? Because this is uncommon, when candidates demonstrate a history of proven success, they stand out to interviewers as particularly attractive candidates. If there is a choice between a UX designer with a proven record versus one whose designs are innovative, but unproven, most interviewers would favor the designer with the proven record.

Question 5: Are you passionate about the design you are presenting?

When you give your portfolio presentation, you must demonstrate that you are passionate about your design work and the design process. You should want to talk about the problem you were solving, be excited about the design process, and be proud of what you ultimately produced. Candidates who do not demonstrate this passion do not get job offers—even if they have the experience and expertise to do the job. If you aren’t passionate about your work, how do you expect interviewers to be passionate about you as a candidate? So choose to present the work you are most proud of during the portfolio review. Be excited about discussing the design. Show your passion for good design.

Question 6: Is your presentation professional?

There are times in your career when you must present your designs to UX peers, Product Management, Engineering, customers, or C-level executives. The portfolio review is a test of your ability to present a design in a professional setting. While interviewers may not ask you this question during the interview, they’ll be thinking about it while they evaluate you as a candidate.

Do your artifacts look professional?

Consider your slides and your portfolio as another design project. Make sure they’re easy to understand and error free. If your portfolio artifacts weren’t well put together, consider what that would say about your abilities as a designer?

Are your ideas coherent?

Can you coherently and clearly talk about the project? Is the story easy to follow and complete? You should prepare notes or an outline to make sure you don’t miss anything.

Have you practiced your presentation?

Think of the portfolio review as an audition. Unless you are a natural or an experienced public speaker, you need to practice. Even if you’re a good public speaker, I’d still recommend that you practice. Ideally, you should practice with an audience of other UX designers, friends, or old coworkers. Practice in front of a mirror or record yourself. Ask yourself whether, based on this presentation, you would hire you?

Are you a confident presenter?

Because UX designers often get asked to present their designs to a project’s internal and external stakeholders, you need to be able to demonstrate confidence in your designs and your process. Some companies even assign a challenging interviewer specifically to test a candidate’s ability to handle pressure during presentations. Be confident in your designs. Demonstrate your ability to stand up to challenges without becoming defensive or uncertain.

The interviewers should leave the presentation with the knowledge that you can present your ideas and designs effectively and professionally. No matter how experienced you are, you can still bomb in a portfolio review if you don’t prepare properly.

Other Questions to Ask Yourself

In addition to the six key questions I’ve already discussed, let’s consider some other questions that might be pertinent, depending on the nature of the work in your portfolio and the types of projects you’ve worked on.

Are you too focused on aesthetics?

It is not uncommon for candidates to highlight design work that has a beautiful visual design, but no real UX substance. Or they might present content such as videos or mood boards, but fail to show any of the actual design work or the finished product. You shouldn’t highlight work from your portfolio just because it is beautiful—unless the job is a visual-design position. There must be substance behind those pretty user interfaces.

If you’ve completed a project that is both a great UX design and a beautiful visual design, definitely highlight that project during the portfolio review. But, if you must make a choice between a good story and aesthetics, go with the story. Bring out your pretty designs only as supporting materials.

Is this design relevant to the job?

Are you applying for a position for which it is important to demonstrate experience that is specific to the product domain? For example, if you’re applying for a job designing a customer-facing ecommerce product, experience with designing for ecommerce is obviously going to help.

There is no good general rule for when to focus on domain experience. For one thing, the hiring manager has already made the decision to interview you based on your resume and online portfolio. If you’ve gotten as far as a portfolio review, either you’ve already shown relevant examples in your portfolio or the hiring manager has decided to interview you based on reasons other than your domain experience.

Another thing to remember is that many UX-design problems tend to be universal. For example, most software products have notification systems, the concepts of status, user accounts, and security. It shouldn’t be difficult to convince your audience that the experience you gained designing a document-management system for a customer-relationship management (CRM) product would transfer over to designing a document-management system for an accounting product. The problems are the same. If you start by calling out the universal nature of the problem, everyone in the room should be able to see that.

In the end, deciding what product designs to show is a judgment call. Some interviewers are going to want to see specific domain experience, and you’ll have to decide for yourself how best to handle that.

How should you discuss team efforts on projects?

No design gets created in a vacuum. Sometimes you might have been working with a team of UX designers on a project, so there’s no clear distinction between your work and the team’s work. Even if you are the only UX designer on a project, it is still likely that you had input from other UX professionals—such as help with user research or using your company’s pattern library. Beyond the design team, you’re working with product managers, engineers, and other members of a broader product team, who may also have contributed to the design. During your presentation, you must call out the contributions of others, as appropriate.

First and foremost, this is a question of ethics. You should never claim work that others have done as your own work or inflate your own contributions. Never present a group project as individual work. If something was a group project or others created part of a design in your portfolio, you need to call that out.

The best approach is to turn team efforts into a positive. Present yourself as someone who is able to work with other designers, as well as with cross-functional teams. Discuss how the team worked together and how you individually contributed to the team and to the design. UX teams are becoming larger and, thus, more entrenched in the development process. The ability to work as part of a team can make a big difference in how you are perceived as a UX designer.

What did you learn from the project?

Another question you should be prepared to answer is: What did you learn? It is important to be able to talk about how a specific project made you a better designer or taught you a new skill that would be applicable to other design projects. You might have learned about designing for a specific type of user, designing for a new domain, or designing for a new platform or technology. Or perhaps you learned about a specific market through which the product would be sold.

Learning is integral to design and to making better design decisions. Discussing what you’ve learned shows that you are interested in becoming a better designer.

How did you handle outside influences on the design?

It is not uncommon for designs to get cut back or for holistic solutions become compromised because of pressure from Product Management, Engineering, or leadership. There might be a temptation to blame the limitations and failures of the final design on such outside pressures. Do not do this during an interview! This would only come across as your failure as a designer to properly validate, advocate for, and deliver the design to the team. It also signals a lack of accountability for your work. Do not dwell on such problems or use them as an excuse for questionable design decisions.

Every design is a compromise. Every design process encounters challenges. If you want to talk about the challenges you encountered on a project or someone asks you how you’ve handled such problems, focus on how you overcame the challenges or worked around them. For example, talk about how you’ve worked with difficult team members to find a solution that satisfied everyone. Or discuss how you’ve overcome such pressures by providing evidence from usability testing or metrics or by building consensus. If you do this optimally, you can turn a negative experience into a positive and make your presentation stronger.

Finally, if you aren’t happy with a design because you feel that it was compromised, don’t include it in your portfolio—and certainly don’t include it in your portfolio review.

Final Thoughts

All of these questions are either questions that I have been asked when interviewing for jobs, questions that I have asked job candidates, or questions that I have heard others ask during portfolio reviews. It is true that some interviewers and even entire companies have different points of view on portfolio reviews and presentations from what I’ve described in this article. Perhaps they focus more on innovation or aesthetics. However, in my experience, you’ll be successful in seeking a new job if you follow these recommendations. Even if you don’t ask yourself all of these questions, just taking the time to be thoughtful about your portfolio presentation and planning what you’ll say before you walk into that meeting room boosts your chances of success. 

Senior UX Designer at LogicMonitor

Austin, Texas, USA

Keith SealyKeith has more than 20 years of experience in software design and product management at companies such as SPSS Statistics, IBM, Accruent, and Blackbaud. In 1998, he joined the Product Design team at SPSS, where he designed analytics products for academic and business users. In 2010, IBM acquired SPSS, and Keith became a member of the IBM UX Design team, where he worked on IBM/SPSS Statistics, Cognos, and Watson Analytics. Since leaving IBM, he has worked as a UX designer and product m anager at several enterprise SaaS companies. Currently, at LogicMonitor, Keith designs SaaS network monitoring software, focusing on analytics and visualizations. His passion is making information easier to understand, data easier to manage, and analytics easier to execute, and creating visualizations that inform and delight users. Keith holds a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from University of Colorado at Boulder and a Master’s in Experimental Psychology from University of Texas, Austin. He has also earned a level-3 certification in Pragmatic Marketing.  Read More

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