Last year, I found this question on the Interaction Design Association list:

I need to create portfolio to show my ability to design end-to-end user experiences with examples of design proposals, scenarios, use cases, interaction flows, wireframes, UX architecture, visual designs and specifications. I am looking for guidance and examples for how to create an interesting portfolio.

You already have all the tools you need; you just don’t realize it yet.

The first step is to take a step back and re-imagine the problem space. Getting work to put a roof over your head and food on the table would seem to be the most basic way to see the problem and solution. This doesn’t really require whiteboarding and blue-ocean strategy. But the next step is always harder, and I think most of us approach it backwards, as if every UX method, process, activity, and deliverable we ever did was wiped from our memory like Jason Bourne, leaving us quivering and alone, armed with all these tools but no understanding of who we are. If we simply reframe our career as a design problem, we can use design thinking to generate a possible solution, the portfolio being the tangible manifestation of that solution—a deliverable, but not an end in itself.

Instead of applying some of the lessons from our UX experience to our own career development and portfolio design, we sometimes jump right into the visual design and copywriting for our last four successful projects. I think this sucks; it is an affront to the very craft we claim to be passionate about.

What is the first thing we usually do when we take on a new UX project of almost any size and scope? If you answered, “kickoff meeting,” then you get the cookie. What I mean, though, is not the traditional kickoff meeting with a bunch of stakeholders gathered around a conference table under fluorescent lights, munching on stale baked goods. No, I mean “kickoff” in the sense of engaging in some of the following activities:

1. Project definition, goals and objectives

Ultimately, your goal is to find and land your next great job, whether it’s permanent or contract. You need to have a vision of who you want to be in two years, not just that you want to eat next week.

Designers have a prescriptive job. We suggest how the world might be; we are futurists to some extent.
     – Brigitte Borja de Mozota

Have a vision for where you want to be, and sketch out a strategic roadmap for how you think you can get there. And a “vision” needn’t be unrealistic; that roadmap may include picking up some freelance gigs just to keep the rain off your head and a scotch in your hand.

2. Competitive analysis and research

Identify and research the top five companies or causes you would love to work for. I think most UX designers have this list floating around in their head, even if they’ve never written it down. It could be a top-tier design agency such as IDEO or frog, or it could be reinventing the way social justice entrepreneurs fund their next innovations. It can be anything, but it’s important to write them down, research the opportunities, and gather data about the way prospective employers describe their job requirements.

Then identify at least 1-2 people at those companies and stalk them virtually. Check them out on LinkedIn and try to find out what in their history (their writing, blogging, publishing, tweeting, etc.) got them hired to their dream positions. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What do you need to learn, or which skills do you need to acquire to get where those people are now? This is often called the “design gap”—the difference between where you are today and where you want to be.
  • What does your T-shaped skill set look like? What additional disciplines should you spend time on? For example, are you great at wireframing but terrible at doing remote usability testing? Perhaps you should focus on that. But make sure you focus on learning things you want to do in the future; remember that this is moving towards a future version of yourself. Align you skill-enhancing activities with your goals.
  • What soft skills should you focus on improving? Do you talk constantly, or too fast? Do you take forever to get to a point? Are you judgmental? If you need to become better at communication, whether verbal or written, do you have a plan in place?
  • What ingrained, annoying behaviors and personality defects have prevented you from succeeding in the past? Be honest about this, and write it down and stick it on your monitor. One personality defect I have is that I rush to judgment too quickly, sometimes sending off scathing comments without thinking. So I have been trying really hard to be more empathetic, to engage my mirror neurons and put myself in the shoes of the person I am responding to. It’s not easy—this behavior is ingrained and toxic—but I have acknowledged it and am trying to temper my communications accordingly.

3. Stakeholder interviews

Use your network of friends, friends of friends, school connections, IxDA, IAI, SIGCHI, NYC Tech Meetup, whatever, to engage with people who make hiring decisions at companies like the ones you want to work at. You should have a simple list of 3-4 questions you would ask them about what they look for in a portfolio. Let them tell you what the portfolio should show, how it should be communicated, and at what level of details. While you’re at it, observe their mannerisms, affect, use of language, and how they answer the questions. When I asked Jeff Gothelf, Director of User Experience at TheLadders and an advocate for LeanUX, he said:

Anyone can draw straight lines in OmniGraffle. What I want to know is what the problem you tackled entailed, how you approached a solution, what your role was in the implementation of that solution and, equally as important, what was the outcome. In short, I want to know how you solve problems. A wireframe gallery doesn’t tell me that.

Then take the insights from the stakeholders you interview, combined with the information gleaned from activity #2 above, and craft at least one provisional persona based on that information. Just like products and solutions, you’re designing your portfolio to meet a need of a target audience, which means you need a persona that identifies those decision makers (hiring managers), their goals, needs, pain points, desires, backgrounds, aspirations, work habits, etc. Be explicit in the detail, but be very careful if you choose to share these findings with other designers; writing a critical or disparaging persona of a potential hiring manager could get around and severely limit your career prospects.

4. User scenarios

Write at least one, if not two, user scenarios or narratives from the perspective of the hiring manager. Write the narrative as a day-in-the-life, describing the people they interact with, and their interactions with the teams they manage. If you can, identify other people on the team and bring them to life. Hiring decisions are rarely left to just one person. Write some dialog, if you feel so inspired. The key is to humanize these decision makers, placing yourself in their shoes and understanding that you are designing your portfolio as a means to solving a problem they have. Ignore your problem of needing a job—that’s not their concern.

5. Narrative writing

Find one solid story you can tell from your previous or current position that gives a complete picture of your skills, background, and thought processes. This is far better than showing wireframes across ten different projects. Would you rather see ten different de-contextualized sex scenes, or one epic movie with a love scene? Which do you think will get you the job?

Tell a story, make it compelling, and… wait for it… be honest about when you failed, how you dealt with it, and what you learned. Don’t be a douchebag that frames failure as being everyone’s fault, or makes meaningless and vapid excuses like, “I was just too passionate about making sure it was the most elegant, mind blowing social buzzword, buzzword, buzzword, and the rest of the team just lacked the desire to be as focused as me.” Save it for someone stupid enough to believe that load of crap. Real hiring managers are human beings that want authentic engagement, so stop rewriting your past like some PR press release.

I don’t expect designers to get it right the first time. Failures and iterations are a key part of problem solving. As a hiring manager, I want to hear about your initial attempts and why they failed. It teaches me about your ability to accept that failure, learn from it and build on it in your next revision. The way you describe that failure also reveals how well you worked with your team. Stick to the facts without blaming others. Take ownership where your work failed.
     – Jeff Gothelf

In fact, move in the opposite direction and pwn that failure. Every project has some failures, and every project has to deal with the realities of resources, time, commitments, team dynamics, and dickhead stakeholders, clients, or boss’ wife that want some button to be green. Professionals take ownership and losers point fingers.

6. Craft a portfolio

From the story you have crafted as a long-form narrative (which will never be shared), craft a portfolio that tells your story, in context, to your audience. Make sure it addresses their needs, goals, and desires from their perspective. The portfolio should be concise, easily understandable, and provide a richer picture of you. It should represent the value you bring to an organization —things that can’t be found on your backward-looking resume, which some people in the recruiting/job search space have referred to as your “professional obituary.” Gothelf argues:

Your portfolio should be simple. It should reflect your ability to structure information in an easily digestible format. Forgo fancy transitions and layouts and focus on storytelling.

7. Plan for everything

Choose the best tools to tell the story. Never count on an Internet connection when you finally do get in front of the hiring manager. Make print and Web versions. Make them downloadable. Send your entire story to these people when they ask for a resume. In fact, be ready to grab a marker and draw your story on the whiteboard. Know the story by heart. Then the interview becomes a conversation focused on the two most important things: are you a good fit (personality/culture/demeanor), and how will you make their lives easier so they can go home early, play Legos with their kids, and enjoy a quiet evening with their spouses?

Conclusion

The key to crafting a kick-ass portfolio is to realize that, just as the persona deliverable is less important than the user research to create a deep empathy for the customer of the experience you are trying to craft, your portfolio is simply an instantiation of a visual narrative of your thought process in moving from problem space to solution, as well as your ability to reflect back and access your successes and failures. To repeat a fundamental mantra of UX design, “you are not the user,” which means you can’t just guess what these audiences want; get out their and ask them. In the end, your portfolio is about storytelling to express who you are and how you solve problems so hiring managers spend less time on the portfolio itself, and more time thinking about how you can contribute to their team’s success.

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