The problem with UX/UI portfolios
Andy tweeted this earlier today:
Whenever I see the portfolio of somebody who describes themselves as UX/UI, it's almost always 90% UI.— Andy Budd (@andybudd) June 16, 2021
As I wrote about on Monday in my weeknotes, the idea of a portfolio has been on my mind for a while now. It seems to resurface every year or so. I’ve reviewed hundreds – maybe thousands – of portfolios in my career. I’ve also presented mine a good few times.
As it’s been on my mind, I replied:
What does a UX portfolio look like?— Mark Boulton (@markboulton) June 16, 2021
(he says, retreating slowly backwards into a bush…)
How do portfolios fit when you are the only product designer in cross-disciplinary product team? How do they work when you are the UX lead in the digital team in a science organisation? What do you show? What do you write about? What if you think you are a terrible writer? What if the only output of your work is a few deliverables like a service journey map and a few wireframes? What if the reality of your work has been to grease the cogs of a challenging organisation under the guise of being called a UX Director? Where is the portfolio here?
I’d like to unpick a few of the issues that I think are the problem with the expectation of portfolios for different roles.
1. Map the portfolio to the role
If you are a product designer applying for a senior product designer role, then, yes, your portfolio should prioritise design craft. First and foremost, this is about ability. But a close second, more so than methods you might have used to gain insight, or what the commercial outcomes might have been, is an explanation of the context of the project: the client, the team, the goals, the approach. That’s it. It doesn’t need to be lengthy.
But if this is a UX role, or a UX manager role, do not expect to be presenting pixel perfect mocks. And if you are the hiring manager, it’s your job to make sure that no-one is going to waste their time doing so. Set expectations.
This is why UX/UI is such a terrible role description. It represents a continuum and, without qualification, can lead to a lot of wasted time.
2. Communication is critical, but not all communication is written
Expecting well-crafted long-form stories of projects is not an inclusive position. If it is expected, it should be in the job description.
Portfolios have always been about demonstrating ability, yes, but mainly they are a sales tool. And good sales methods are conversations. Your portfolio should invite inquiry. A reviewer should leave wanting to know more. The best portfolios I’ve seen were not complete job histories and thousands of words long. They were snapshots of contexts, approach, and skill. And I always wanted to know more.
A good portfolio is a foot in the door.
3. Have more than one portfolio
When interviewing for a role, you don’t walk through your entire education and work history. You may be asked to present on a particular thing, or be asked to walk through a project or two. The portfolio can then act as supplementary material to the discussion you’ve just had, but this is different to the portfolio you used to get the interview. That’s a sales tool, remember. This other portfolio is follow-on.
By having a bank of projects at your disposal, you are able to curate collections of work applicable to the job you are after.
4. Design leaders and portfolios
Well, this is a big ‘depends’. Do you even need to be a designer to lead a design function? In many big tech orgs, I’m not sure you do anymore.
If you ask me, if you are the design leader of an organisation, then the quality of that design output ultimately is your responsibility. If your time is spent inching that seat ever closer to the table, it is not spent nurturing the quality of the work. By time spent, I mean focussing on the environment, the diversity of the team and their backgrounds, pushing the quality, and empowering designers to do what they do best and get better at where they are weakest.
That’s what a design leaders portfolio should be. Stories of how they’ve built diverse teams, delivered amazing work, and moved the needle, whatever that needle is: profit, share price, charter renewal, NPS score (shudder).
So when job descriptions for VPs or Directors of Design crop up asking for portfolios, I try not to wince. This is how I look at it. They are asking for some stories.
Nobody has enough time. Ever.
In my first job, the art director reviewed new portfolios in moments. They sat on a big pile on the desk and were sorted into two piles: ‘no’, and ‘let’s ask them in for a chat’.
For the ‘no’ pile, no feedback was given. Just a ‘no thanks, we’ll keep you on file’. We didn’t. Nobody did.
I’d like to think things are better. When I’m reviewing portfolios they are still sorted into two piles, but I try to give written feedback if I have time. If I’m reviewing design work, I’m looking for a couple of things:
- Craft. Do they have the chops. Me being me, specifically, typography. And it’s the little, tiny details I’m looking at: body copy, how have they typeset long form, examples of informational content. Many design choices do not really need explanation: to the experienced and trained eye, mistakes are mistakes.
- Being mindful to my inner voice. Am I asking why? If I am, they go in the ‘let’s ask them in for a chat’ pile.
- Can they explain the context of the project? This doesn’t need to be a thousand words. Just enough is necessary for me to fairly evaluate the work in front of me.
- Can they get to the point quickly. Both in written form, and design form, is their work direct?
And, really, that’s it. I am less interested in methods and being able to apply the right UX method at the right time. Or how lovely your journey map looks. Don’t get me wrong, those things can be useful examples to help explain a project, but they are transitory artefacts and, often, too much time is spent making them beautiful because they correspond to line items on an invoice to a client.
6. UX roles and portfolios
For those UX roles that require a portfolio, but the applicant only has artefacts from UX methods to show for it, presents a conundrum.
How do you talk about the work when the work is collaboration, workshops, research, and lo fi prototyping?
If you are a good writer, then it’s no bother; write the story of the work, sprinkle in photos of post-it notes and people looking at walls, a few screen grabs of Miro and you’re golden.
But what if you aren’t?
Communication is a critical skill in UX design. I’ve met some very good UX designers who can traverse complex organisations and stakeholders, manage difficult workshops, conduct insightful research, but struggle enormously when writing a case study about themselves and their work. This is not a failing, but a demonstration of preference. For these people, we need to find ways in our hiring processes to include them.
If you feel like this might be you, I’d encourage you to create some simple one-pager written project debriefs. Write them like a sprint retro: short, punchy, and direct. Explain the project, what went well, and what didn’t. Don’t feel like you will be judged on your ability to craft a good story but on your ability to solve hard design problems.
This is what I expect from a good portfolio:
- It’s mapped to the role. If it’s not, is that my fault?
- It should give me just enough to ask to speak with you 1-1.
- It should demonstrate your breadth not depth.
- It should focus on end results, not process artefacts. Your fancy journey map template or brand canvas are artefacts of discussion.
- They are short and to the point. I won’t waste your time, don’t waste mine.
- It’s open and/or portable, and shareable. A publicly available URL is perfect. I will want to share it. Work behind passwords is a red flag for me.