Refuse to Create a UX Portfolio

Your UX Portfolio is dumbing down the profession…Here’s why.

I see resumes and portfolios all of the time. I work at Audible, an Amazon company, as a UX / Product Designer, so I am fully aware that creating deliverables, whether they are user flows, wireframes, prototypes, etc. is part of the process. Here’s the kicker:

I don’t understand most of them.

Not to say that I don’t understand the point of what the designer in question is trying to do in showing a sample of their work. That much is obvious. What isn’t obvious are other things, like: Why was it successful? Who was the audience? How did Personas inform the design decisions? What were the compromises? How is this simpler (than the original design)? What are the metrics like? What are the KPIs (key performance indicators) your design seeks to increase? Do people even like it? Does anyone even use it?

A great portion of the time I look at other people’s work either one or two things happen. I’m either impressed by the craft of the design, in which case I assume that the designer in question had something to do with the high fidelity nature of the deliverables and conversations usually shift to discussions around that, or else the interactions and flows in question drive the discussion.

Rarely, though, do I see UX Portfolios start off with a business challenge. If, as Mike Monteiro argues, designers are problem solvers, then we should be highlighting the problems and our approach to solving them rather than only focusing on the end solution.

Because the end solution does not communicate how effectively we solve problems.

There is a reason that when companies hire MBA degree-holders they don’t ask to see their portfolio. Doing so would be ridiculous. Yet MBA’s are hired every day without showing examples of work they’ve produced. Most MBA’s are hired for, presumably, the skills and type(s) of critical thinking they’ve learned while studying for the MBA degree, not their ability to draw straight lines. So, in the age where software eliminates the ability of the designer to manually draw straight lines, why does having a portfolio count as a prerequisite for many UX and design jobs?

It’s not criminal, but it does indicate something. The company that is interested in hiring you is doing so just as much for your ability to render (if not more so) than your ability to think critically and solve problems. That says something about them and what they are looking for.

I went down this road before. My portfolio was littered with snippets of wireframes, some random UI samples and prototype examples. It was a mess that didn’t present my ability to successfully engage business challenges. Below are some examples.

Early UX / UI for Healthcare Competition (2012)
Early prototype for a mobile game (from 2012)
Wireframe for client in the energy sector (from 2012)

What do these show that I can do to help grow a product or business? Other than draw boxes and 3d primitive shapes, I’m not quite sure (and the people I showed these samples to probably weren’t sure either!) I slowly began learning, however, to present my own work in a way that tells a story of the entire engagement.

Put yourself in another echelon. Whether you decide to simply call yourself (or you actually are) a Design Strategist, Service Designer, Experience Lead, etc. do yourself a favor. Structure the initial engagement that others have with your work to be something like the following:

What were the business challenges?

This could be something as simple as a sentence or two that indicates what problem you were solving.

What was your approach?

Surely you evaluated / tried things and settled on a solution…Note these down as well as the decision-making that went into how you came to your conclusions.

What was that process like?

What were the lessons learned? What compromises were made and how did these effect the final product?

What was the result?

When did you say ‘finished’? Was it when you handed the work off to the client or is it every two weeks when you track user engagement with your new app or game?

How did you measure success / failure?

Surely not everything you work on is a smashing success. What did you use to evaluate the results of your labor? How does your boss, or bosses’ boss, know that what you worked on turned out to be a success for the company? How is it measured? Is there a percentage increase that is important to the business?

Below is a fictional example of a presentation that aligns with the above tenets. It has been overly simplified for the purposes of this article. Note: this is not the only alternative you can take to creating a traditional portfolio, merely an illustration of one way to focus your audience’s attention on your ability to solve business challenges rather than simply operate software.

Try ditching the portfolio for once and focus everyone’s attention on you as a problem-solver, not a draftsman. You’ll be able to (re) invent yourself in a way where your value increases exponentially since you can solve business challenges and draw a straight line.

Updates made 4-22-14: Portfolio and case study examples added for further clarification