Refuse to Create a UX Portfolio Part 2 — The Portfolio Awakens

Timothy Jaeger
Dec 30, 2015 · 7 min read

I published Refuse to Create a UX Portfolio about a year ago and, I’m not going to lie — it got more attention than I would have imagined. I haven’t looked at stats recently but as of 12/29/15 the article has received 15,200 reads and 33,000 views. I haven’t received much backlash to the premise of the article — in fact, I think it has been widely and universally acknowledged that UX Professionals should present themselves, ahem, differently, than UI / Graphic / Visual Designers, especially if they want to grow and have more relevance into the decisions and outcomes of the business(es) that they are working in.

In full disclosure, I had a traditional ‘portfolio’ for a few years, especially starting out. Recruiters and companies would see various wireframes, a few flows, maybe some landing page designs, along with a smorgasborg of other artifacts, and have to make sense of them very quickly as they go about making hiring decisions. For the most part, this was fairly successful. I was gainfully employed (nearly) the entire time I presented work in this format.

However, things changed. The industry changed and I changed. The fact that I was showing a smattering of samples started to hurt the way I appeared to prospective employers and clients.

Outcome-Based Deliverables

Eventually I began to realize my time spent on client and employer projects became more and more focused on outcomes. A company or client wanted a business result, not just a graphic design. Previously, where the company knew what they wanted and I was brought in to fulfill a deliverable for their vision that could be handed to a developer and coded up became a collaborative session where ‘we have problems, man!’ and ‘Okay, let’s figure it out together’ became the refrain. I wasn’t spending days or weeks on projects, I was spending months and years helping clients get somewhere. As people started asking me for my portfolio I was left wondering, ‘I think you want the UI guy, I’m holed up with the Product or Marketing Manager all day long solving business challenges…’

The industry also changed. Lean UX, Agile UX, Service Design all crept into the popular consciousness, and not just in design circles. Everyone wanted into the mix. Everyone, including executives, were feverishly sketching on whiteboards and designing products. Design wasn’t a thing you handed someone, it was something anyone could do. It evolved from a deliverable to something else, a collaborative frenzy between Product, Developers, and Design. UX Designers simply had to change how they presented their work because the way they were working had fundamentally changed.

Enter the Case Study

I realized that to adequately describe and articulate the months spent working on business challenges with a variety of stakeholders the case study was the most complete framework. As a background, a case study has (roughly) the following sections:

  • Situation
  • Challenges
  • Actions
  • Results

This framework just seemed more appropriate for conveying the challenges I was being asked to solve.

Harvard Business Review Case Study page

Possibly based on my article, or possibly just because the industry was changing, other designers started replacing their (capital P) Portfolio with Case Studies. Below is one example. Stefan Hiienurm is a talented UI/UX designer in Estonia who presents his work as Case Studies. I consider this kind of presentation to be getting closer to the future I invision for UX and Product Professionals. Although his presentation is mostly UI design, the intent is there, and that counts for something. Rome wasn’t built in a day… This is what I consider to be transitional UX between an older UX / UI Portfolio and a newer model describing scenarios and outcomes.

Case Studies page from STEFAN HIIENURM’s site

Fresh Tilled Soil, an experience-design company in Massachusetts, is getting closer to how UX Professionals are working in this day and age. Their case studies describe a problem / situation, tasks, and an outcome. They present coherent, concise samples of what they did for the client. There is a clear indication of strategy and design-thinking at work. This is starting to get at what I intended in my previous article (although since their Case Studies are fairly short it can be difficult to really understand or quantify the value — back to this in a moment).

My Problem with Portfolios

  • Agile Development Killed the Deliverable— Software development never ends and there are new artifacts every single day. Products don’t end. They evolve. How do you encapsulate this into something bite-sized? Is it worth it to keep updating that thing with low-fidelity sketches?
  • I’m Not a Graphic Designer, Bro — There’s a tendency in DesignLand to fetishize the final product (although nowadays Design Thinking is being fetishized..). When I send something out what are people looking at? What are they thinking? All those hard-to-read pictures of whiteboards and flows — does anyone really understand what they mean or why they are relevant? I want to control the reception of everything I do, and I’m not sure a ‘portfolio’ is the right way to do that
  • I’d Rather Identify With Strategists and Product — I want my work to be taken seriously. I want businesses to consider me a revenue-generator, not a cost. ‘Design’ is finally getting a seat at the Big Boys Table, so I don’t want to squander it. Portfolios are traditionally used for fine artists, visual designers, photographers, etc. Getting away from the ‘pretty pictures’ business require some paradigm changes, so that’s where I’m aligning myself.

Next-Level UX Case Studies

I’m not sure where the zenith lies in terms of presenting UX work, although I have no doubts that, as a profession, we will get there. What I do know is that you can differentiate yourself or your company by:

  • Articulate the Problem you were tasked to solve — Did the client ‘just need a new website’ or were you tasked with solving a problem, like lowering user acquisition costs? Be clear about your role / engagement
  • Focus on the Science, the Art will Follow — This is a gross simplification I’m about to make, but f*** it…everything in DesignLand looks pretty the same now, with the same fonts, Material Design templates and Dribbble shots being looked at and copied by the same people. So focusing on the Science and Methodology behind your work gives you an edge. Did you do multiple sessions of Usability and A/B Tests to arrive at the decision to kill your Hamburger menu? Did you take a structured approach to revitalising an SEO campaign to get better organic search traffic? Businesses love this because the processes are repeatable if explained. They don’t have to do a lot of guesswork when looking at your work to wonder if the designs sprung up Unicorn-style from your minds-eye…
  • Number Don’t Lie — Yo Gotti really nailed it on the head. Numbers Don’t Lie. If you show me whiteboards and post-it notes it looks cool and evident that you are using Design Thinking but what’s really hot is if I’m looking at some evidence all that thinking resulted in something cool, like lots of money, for the business.
  • Convergence — UX as a field is quickly morphing — Growth Hacking, Internet of Things, Wearables — there are so many possibilities. Keep your approach, methods, and outlook constantly updated and you’ll find yourself inventing new ways of presenting what you do to anyone you meet.

A Compromise

Based on a recent Twitter exchange with Ian Fenn and Red Dolan I will concede one point — all of those case studies could constitute a ‘Portfolio’. I know Ian is working on a book for O’Reilly called Designing a UX Portfolio and I think our disagreement is more semantic than anything else. I haven’t read the book yet (it should be out in June 2016) but I imagine that it will be a very comprehensive look at the kind of work UX and Product Designers do and how it can be presented to recruiters, employers, etc. I am excited for it and will surely purchase and read it. If a cluster of case studies constitutes a Portfolio, then so be it. Discussion over. The Portfolio Awakens.

However, maybe I am just an island-of-one in thinking that UX as a profession has so many larger challenges and ways of working ahead of it that Portfolios are just passe and don’t best represent what we do. Maybe I’m the crazy one here. If that’s the case, maybe I’ll need to step in line.

Either way — here’s to the futurists and those who are continuously looking to evolve, grow, and change the world around them.

Note: Hopefully Stefan Hiienurm and Fresh Tilled Soil don’t mind that I referenced their work in this article.

Timothy Jaeger

Written by

Experienced Product Designer, investor (stocks, crypto), Futurist. Interested in economics, socio-cultural trends, human behavior.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade