In Pursuit of the Perfect UX Portfolio
One of the more common questions I get from folks here in the Seattle UX community is about portfolios: How to create an effective portfolio? How much work should I show? What’s the one piece to include (for “x” job)?
I won’t pretend to have the perfect answers to these questions (hence the title “In Pursuit of…”). I don’t mind, however, sharing a few tips that I’ve found helpful in creating portfolios and interviewing and hiring folks based on them. As it happens, I’ve also recently finished a ground-up redesign of my own portfolio, so I can put some of that advice in first-hand context.
The overall tactic I’ve most recommended (and followed in turn) for getting started in portfolio creation is to look at the portfolios of folks who have landed the kinds of jobs you’re interested in with the kinds of companies you want to work for. Those portfolios (or something like them) helped those individuals get hired.
You can also find inspiration in the annual crops of “best portfolio” sites in UX and design. Just like a more targeted search around positions and employers, these will give you a good sense of what’s out there – and what hiring managers are seeing day after day. This will, in turn, give you a sense of both where the bar is and where you can do something different – either by doing something new, or by simply not repeating the latest design cliche.
Recognizing a polished portfolio, however, is not the same as knowing how to arrive at that end result. This is especially true when your skills are in IA or research, as opposed to final UI design (which lends itself more naturally to visual display).
Luckily for us, the internet abounds in nothing if not advice. Here are a few of the key insights I’ve drawn from some of the better resources out on the web.
Make Your UX Portfolio User-Centered
Christiana Wodtke gets right to the point here: Hiring managers typically have only 5 minutes to give to a portfolio. Does your portfolio help them quickly come to a decision about whether or not to give it (and you) more time – or an interview?
Christina suggests that there are three things you can do to make the hiring manager’s job easier:
Tell her you can do the job
Show her you can do the job
Make her want to work with you
I did a couple of specific things in my own portfolio to address these points. First, I used my “intro blurb” to highlight my aptitudes and strengths as a designer. I’m good at research, IA, and interaction design. I call these out clearly (“tell her you can do this job”); this helps my reader know she is on the right track.
I then follow that blurb with high level project summaries that mirror the structure (and language) I use in my intro. These summaries lead in turn to more detailed case studies and examples that “show her I can do the job.”
The examples I give here are intentionally not exhaustive: Their goal is to support the arguments I make about the work I do as succinctly as possible – remember, you’ve got five minutes. (I’ll get to Christina’s third point below.)
Make Your Portfolio Easy to Navigate
This should be obvious. And we should be able to just package it up with “be user-centered” and be done with it. Yet: portfolios organized by client or time can make it hard for hiring managers (or anyone else, for that matter) to get to the bottom of your skill set. This may be how you organize your work in your head, but is it usable for your audience?
It seems simple when you think about it: does this hiring manager want to know that you worked for “x” brand? or that after y project you did z project? Probably not. That said, you do want to highlight that a major company trusted you with its online users, and you do want to make it clear that you’ve progressed to increasingly complex work.
Luckily for you, balancing competing needs is in your wheelhouse as a designer. Here’s the approach I took: instead of arranging my work by date or client, I arranged it by skill set. I then used my portfolio’s type hierarchy to identify the client and a provide an easily scannable list of the work that I did on each project. Hiring managers (or anyone else) can click into each case for details, and for those already stretching their five-minute windows, I’ve provided a high level view of the information they need up front (and all on the home page).
Fill Your Portfolio with Stories
In much of UX – and in pretty much all of IA – design is rarely a simple matter of the “end” product. The end product is important, of course, but what clients (and employers) pay for is the neuron-time that gets to that end product. All of which means that you have to show your process and you have to show your thinking.
Jared Spool suggests that “filling one’s portfolios with stories” is a good way to discuss the work you did while under NDA without violating confidentiality agreements. Even if you’re not limited by NDA, this is still an excellent tactic. Telling the stories of how your projects started, evolved, and eventually succeed (or spectacularly failed) gives you context to discuss your design thinking and contribution.
In my own redesign, I’ve chosen to tell my project stories with pictures as much as possible. I have accompanied these pictures with text, of course, but I’ve also tried to make sure the story holds up if my visitor (potentially a time-strapped hiring manager) merely skims the text and heads right to the images.
Likewise, storytelling need not be limited to individual projects. In my own professional trajectory, speaking and writing are equally important elements of the value I offer clients and employers. For this reason I’ve included accounts of recent talks and articles in addition to examples of recent work.
These “thought pieces” help to respond to Christina’s third point: “why would you want to work with me?” For those who decide to dig in a bit deeper, this material also provides a view into my world that helps potential hiring managers get to know me as a designer.
Evolve, Evolve, Evolve.
So. You’ve gotten something down. Great! You’ve made it user-centered, made it navigable, and filled it with stories. Even better!
Now get feedback. Revise. Fine tune. Unless you’re still in school, your portfolio is probably something you’ll have to actively seek feedback on. Talk to colleagues; talk to mentors. Just like the design work you do for a client, a second set of eyes will lend you perspective that, all on your own, is just about impossible to attain otherwise.
And then keep at it. It’s easy to let your portfolio slide once you’ve made a first pass (or landed a gig), but there are definite benefits to keeping your portfolio fresh and up-to-date. Your passions, interests, and skills change over time. So should your portfolio: a well-tended portfolio can give colleagues, collaborators, and employers insight into your professional evolution and help you (and them) identify the opportunities that will best use your skills and that will fuel your continued growth as a designer.
UX Portfolio Design Articles
Your Portfolio Probably Sucks - Christina Wodtke
Fill Your Portfolio With Stories - Jared Spool
Tips for Creating a First-Class Personal Portfolio - Paul Andrew
Great Design Portfolios Are Great Stories - Simon Pan
5 Things to Avoid When Building Your Design Portfolio - Tobias van Schneider