UX portfolios are a waste of time

I have been working in user experience for a number of years, but have only moved job twice; both times a huge amount of anxiety was caused by the hiring company asking for a portfolio. I’ve seen many portfolios whilst helping to recruit, but I wouldn’t consider myself an expert on them.

What I’m going to do is state why people use them before succinctly cutting that argument to shreds using nothing but my crushing intellect.

Why people ask for portfolios

Portfolios are supposed to demonstrate the work you’ve done. They are (often) a visual trip through a number of projects that you’ve worked on, and if they’re interesting enough, they will give you something to talk through if/when you get to the interview stage.

The most compelling reason to have a portfolio is that it forces you to think through exactly what you did, what you produced and what the outcomes of the project were. Because make no mistake, plopping a load of visuals in a document does not for a portfolio make; there needs to be some story-telling, some ideas of the projects you’ve encountered, how you contributed, and some outcomes.

Additionally, if you have, or are going for, a very visual role, then it makes some sense to have a portfolio. A painter would have one I suppose, but then they don’t do any of the things I’m about to talk about (I don’t think).

And so on to my argument…

They’re unrepresentative

How much of good user experience work is visual? Where I’ve struggled in the past is conveying the sheer dirtiness that is UX design, because for me it’s all about the margins. I spend quite a lot of time in meetings selling, convincing, demonstrating, debating etc with technical teams, and business teams, and my peers too. It’s not always cut and dry, and it’s rare that everyone buys into what you’re doing. Everyone has an opinion and you need to spend a lot of time pointing out why people are wrong, and why they are, in fact, morons.

(I’m joking. They of course are not morons. Cretins maybe? Ballbags?)

Your effectiveness in this area plays a huge role in how valuable you can be to a new team. But how on earth does any of that get into a portfolio? It will come across in the interview probably, but something static like a document? Not so sure.

More specifically, if you think research is hugely important to UX (which I do), how much of that can you convey in a portfolio? Excel spreadsheets containing your session notes, test plans, are all drab. Personas can make a good visual, but you probably can’t put any photos of the research taking place in there. And if you sketch stuff on a whiteboard as a result, that might be nice, but then you have to remember to take a bloody photo of it.

Which leads me to my next point: documenting the process. I believe in a lean approach, which relies on conversations, not documentation. That’s great, but what if there are problems actually delivering the work, through no fault of your own? You’ve got no record of what you did, until it eventually goes live.

And what about paper? I generally sketch (badly) on mobile-sized outlines on paper first. These are messy, but help me get things in order and ideate before committing to more formal wireframes. This isn’t very presentable, and I lose them anyway, let alone the scraps of paper, napkins and the like. Not portfolio-friendly.

Even stuff versioned in documents, changed after research: you never go right into the detail due to NDAs so how much can you really demonstrate? Tell me that.

They’re unfair

I’ve never been able to draw. I can use Photoshop and I can use Illustrator, but I’m far from an expert on either. I’m too busy with all the other stuff at work to really learn these so they’re second nature. I’d love to spend my time outside of work doing it all, but I’m afraid I’m too busy drinking.

Compare and contrast to someone who’s more visual, or has a better working knowledge of those tools, and uses them in their jobs. They will have lots of very attractive visuals they can pull together willy-nilly. So just because of the role they have and the prior knowledge they have, they can put together a pretty amazing portfolio.

They can blag all the difficult UX stuff and fall back on the visuals. Worst of all, every one loves good visuals, so they will be more likely to get to interview. You can imagine this is quite a hindrance, particularly in the contractor market, which moves quickly.

And how many people lose their shit over sketch-notes?! Yeah they look great, but I can’t do them and my handwriting looks like that of a doctor on crack. Really, that talent is impressive. On paper, more likely to get them to interview?

Conclusion

If you work in UX alongside visual designers, portfolios are pointless. If you care about outcomes such as delivering good work, but are employed by one of the many companies that take about two years to deliver projects, you’re fucked. Don’t bother. Your CV will get you to interview: from there tell them about the stuff that matters.

I actually did a portfolio once, sent it to a recruiter for feedback, he said: ‘it’s a bit dry isn’t it?’. Well, yeah. Cheers.

I did some analysis a few weeks after this was originally published. You can read about how it got on, some of the arguments on LinkedIn etc.

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