A Great Portfolio Isn’t a Collection of Deliverables

Jared Spool

April 12th, 2012

A great portfolio is a collection of the stories that describe your best work.

As the demand for UX professionals increases, there’s been a renewed discussion on the importance of having a portfolio. There are even some, like Whitney Hess in a recent SxSW panel, who assert that because UX isn’t really about the deliverables, UX pros shouldn’t have a portfolio.

I think quite the opposite. I think that a UX portfolio is an important part of representing what we can do. It’s far more important than a résumé, which is usually just a history of our employment with a few bullets that talk about major accomplishments.

The résumé shows our journey, just like how a map of the world shows the path Magellan took to circumnavigate the globe. But that map doesn’t tell of Magellan’s skill in taking on challenges and overcoming obstacles. That’s what a great portfolio does.

Recently someone showed me some UX designer’s nicely-designed portfolio. It had a beautiful layout and highlighted several deliverables, such as wireframes, sketches, and personas. It even went so far as to explain what a wireframe was and how personas are helpful in the UX process, in case the hiring manager didn’t know those things.

However, what this nicely-designed portfolio failed to do was tell me about the designer’s accomplishments. He didn’t talk about the projects he created the wireframe for. He didn’t say how he developed the personas or how they were used. He didn’t talk about places where the project got complicated and he worked through it, producing an elegant outcome given the constraints.

These are things that smart hiring managers look for. They want to see what you do when faced with challenge, such as a short delivery time, a difficult co-worker, hardware constraints that reduce the design options, or all three at the same time. They want to see the thinking that got you from the idea through to the final design. They want to see what really tested your skills and experience in ways you’ve never been tested before, and how you produced something even you didn’t think you were capable of.

Go ahead. Build an awesome portfolio of your story. Talk about the accomplishments you’re most proud of and don’t leave out any detail that shows what you can do when the world decides to test you. That’s the portfolio of a great designer.

[To be fair to Whitney, she wrote a wonderful article that says all this and more for UX Matters. You should read it.]

9 Responses to “A Great Portfolio Isn’t a Collection of Deliverables”

  1. Mario Bourque Says:

    I agree.

    I’ve always believed case studies are a good way to describe the story behind the deliverables. If someone can demonstrate how they made a difference on a project by presenting deliverables as part of a case study, the hiring manager will get a better idea of how the candidate can work through a project, how they participate on a team and how they delivered the solution they were tasked with.

    I’d bet on the chance that the hiring manager knows what they are looking at. Instead of explaining what a wireframe is, show how an approach to a particular design resulted in an increase of [...] in conversions leading to a revenue increase of [...]. This is particularly of interest if the employer is focused on profit and loss.

    The HR people I know tell me the most important things are fit, how you can contribute to the success of the company and the best bang a company can get with their buck.

  2. Whitney Hess Says:

    Jared, thanks for writing this. I think you’ll bring some much needed attention to the topic.

    I appreciate you linking to my UXmatters article, and it’s clear we share a lot of the same ideas about what a UX portfolio needs to be.

    Just to clarify my statement on the SXSW panel, I said that UX designers shouldn’t have a “portfolio” when the word is used to mean “a set of pieces of creative work collected by someone to display their skills.” I don’t believe that the most important skills a user experience designer has is their ability to craft a good-looking wireframe, good-looking personas and a good-looking affinity diagram. All you can see in a portfolio is how good something looks, not how well it worked. Not how effective it was.

    I believe that the most important skill of a user experience designer is their ability to listen, and a static portfolio simply cannot demonstrate that. That is why instead I choose to go into prospective client meetings with my computer and access to my Dropbox account, ask the stakeholders a series of questions to better understand their business objectives and project goals, and then choose the appropriate past project and walk them through the process I used on it — explaining the activity at each step, showing any associated deliverables, and demonstrating my ability to gather intel through critical listening in order to improve the organization’s decision making. Because that’s what I believe to be my true value.

    If we don’t assume a one-size-fits-all solution for every user experience problem, why should we assume a one-size-fits-all portfolio for every prospective employer?

  3. feadog Says:

    I’d love to see some metrics on what hiring managers actually look at in UX portfolios and how much time they spend reading versus skimming (hint, hint, Jared).

    Absent data, my gut impression is: If you have pictures and text in your portfolio, visitors are naturally going to gravitate to the pictures first, and MAYBE look at the copy. Looking at the copy will probably mean skimming, which is why it’s a good idea to intersperse narrative with informative subheads. My suggestion would be to ditch the long narrative, include pictures (as large as is reasonable) with captions, and bullet points for achievements and highlights. And if you really want to give potential employers a sense for how you think, write a blog.

    No one is making a hiring decision while they’re looking at your portfolio. The job of the portfolio is just to make them feel right about calling you. The heavy lifting should be done in person.

  4. Russ Says:

    I just got off of the phone with a potential client.

    “It’s not about the portfolio, it’s about the toolset” is what this potential client said to me, in terms of what type of information would be useful. (Full disclosure, I had hit this link prior to starting the call and just went ahead and asked the question, since the conversation allowed for it).

    And then, we used some of the previous project work in my portfolio as a springboard into discussing processes, etc.

    That said, I keep my portfolio private, and will walk potential clients/employers through it, and not just arbitrarily show it without having a discussion about it; I do not think that does anyone much good.

    It seems to me that an arbitrary view of a portfolio just shows that someone can work with the tools, and the discussion gets you the rest of the way there.

  5. Russ Says:

    @feadog:
    “I’d love to see some metrics on what hiring managers actually look at in UX portfolios and how much time they spend reading versus skimming (hint, hint, Jared).”

    About 5 years ago (keep that in mind as you read on), I spoke with a handful of hiring managers about my portfolio and gained some insight, for me, at least. Nothing that I quantified, but I did write about it on my blog at the time, if it’s of interest: http://goo.gl/fSfvo

  6. Brett Lutchman Says:

    Jared,
    Your article is spot on and to me personally, doesn’t appear to be new news. I do execute your advice, but with a different approach. I still do show graphical IA/UX artefacts up front to bring in business.

    In my experience I understand the fact that over 95% of hiring managers that I have come across don’t necessarily know what to look (or ask) for when it comes to IA/UX, I take great advantage of this because I really know what they want, but don’t necessarily know how to ask for it.

    On my site, I display a few sample pieces just for hiring managers to gain some insight as to my deliverables.

    This is working very well for me. In panel 4 on my homepage masthead, I display more pieces of work that barely display’s a process but yet again focus’ on what a hiring manager is looking for.

    Upon landing a phone or f2f interview, this is where I expound on what I know the real value it is that they are looking for. That value is my thought process and solutioning procedures.

    It is upon the opportunity of contact where I am able to bring context to my online displays and educate the hiring manager and allow my value to shine.

    Yes I can type out some of these values to go with my online portfolio, but after years (and I mean many years) of trying to figure out how to get more snags for employment/ contracts, I figured out my best way to attract business and keep employers interested. In short, I attract opportunities by displaying hints of graphical evidence that reel in “interest” that allow me to speak and bring context to what attracted them in the first place.

    My approach is completely opposite to Russ’ (based on his response). I can’t see his approach working for me because it just hasn’t.

    Simply put, hiring managers don’t ask “Can I see your case study” because I dont believe (again based on my experience) that they even know what to ask for. Over, and over and over again I’m repeatedly asked for my portfolio- and from my response, you already know my process to responding to this request.

  7. Bryan Says:

    “They want to see what you do when faced with challenge, such as a short delivery time, a difficult co-worker, hardware constraints that reduce the design options, or all three at the same time.”

    I agree employers should have this information, I’m not sure the portfolio is the best place to surface it. That’s what interviews with the hiring manager are for. If I’m a graphic designer, am I going to talk about the time my printer jammed fifteen minutes before I had to hand off deliverables to a client? Maybe in response to a direct question, but otherwise the work should speak for itself and get the ball rolling.

  8. Morgan Says:

    I agree with you, Jared. A portfolio SHOULDN’T just be a collection of deliverables. Case studies are really at the root of explaining both what UX is and how your role as a UX person (I am more of a researcher-type than designer-type, though I do both – this means that while I have enough graphics and explanation, I have a fair number of report deliverables as well) will benefit your potetential employers/projects.

    Unfortunately, as I am looking for a full-time UX position right now, most hiring mangers don’t seem to know or care about that. As was said in a comment upthread, graphics hold attention more than text, and if text is used, it should be “just enough” to cover the problem and what you did. So, while the portfolio isn’t just an unexplained collection of what you dd for a project, you are judged by the things you did, not why or how. The why and how should be explained in an interview, but you’ve got to have punchy visuals to get them interested.

    Maybe if we had UX professionals doing the hring for their teams (and the supposedly UX hiring managers actually knew something about UX), a case-study style portfolio would be more likely to be considered/read.

  9. Jason Mesut Says:

    I have reviewed over 1500 UX and Design cvs and portfolios over the past 18 months.

    I have been a major proponent of portfolios, especially for the jobs I hire for. I am interested in seeing decent looking and detailed deliverables, illustrations of people’s working processes and also the case study stories that illustrate the outcomes from tackling a design challenge.

    I explain more at betteruxportfolios.wordpress.com

    I also do skim at first. Rarely will I go into detail on first pass. That’s because I believe that a portfolio is an artefact of communication that should be designed for time-poor managers and hirers like myself.

    It’ great that Whitney can pull up examples from her Dropbox. When a candidate does this effectively, it is really helpful, and I would always expect to see more examples in an interview. However, many people fall apart at this stage due to nerves – do it is a risky strategy for most.

    The portfolio allows you to craft a linear narrative that you are in control of. The generic-ness is a problem as Whitney points out, but some of the best have a generic core and tailor the rest.

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