When I started out in user experience in 1989 — the field was called ‘human factors’ back then — there was no concept of the ‘UX portfolio’.
Just before I got my first job in the field, I had been working as a researcher in various psychology departments in various universities. My specialism was colour vision, and colour blindness in particular.
The call came when I was working at New York University. On the telephone was British Telecom’s head of Human Factors at Martlesham Heath in Ipswich. He had heard about my work in colour vision and needed someone with precisely that skill set on his team. Back then, there was a real concern that the 8% of men who were colour blind would go to pieces when placed in front of a colour-coded network management display, and I would be BT’s insurance against a network catastrophe. (A note to people under 30: colour displays were a rarity in those days. We all used steam-powered cathode ray tubes where the only colours were green on black).
It was the first and only time I’ve ever been head hunted.
I relate this story to illustrate that my new employer didn’t ask me to send over my portfolio.
If he had, I’d probably still be sitting in the dark in a university psychology department somewhere carrying out colour sensitivity threshold measurements.
So where did the concept of the user experience portfolio come from?
Portfolios are common in visual arts, like design and photography. Picasso, I’m fairly sure, had a portfolio. But they are uncommon to the point of being unheard of in scientific fields, like research and technology. Einstein, I’m fairly sure, didn’t have a portfolio.
But at some point over the last decade, a clueless recruiter or employer asked a user experience researcher for their portfolio. In a panic, the job candidate pulled something together and now it’s just seen as a given that a UX practitioner will have a portfolio that illustrates their work — even if they don’t create visual designs.
So if your work involves voice recordings from field visits, bits of paper prototype and Excel spreadsheets — these days, you’re still expected to create a portfolio.
The problem with UX research portfolios
Most weeks I receive an email from a prospective employee. The email always has their CV as an attachment; sometimes the prospective employee will also attach their portfolio (or provide a link to it).
It’s rare that I see a portfolio that impresses me. If I was the judging type, most of them would, at best, get a ‘C’ grade.
You’re not going to get an interview if that’s the best you can do. Almost always, I see the same set of problems.
Here are four problems I commonly see along with some suggestions on how to fix them.
1 — Stop pretending you’re a visual designer
Visual designers are in the business of creating interfaces that look good. Depending on the research (or lack of it) that went into the designs, the interfaces may actually not be that easy to use — but the first impression will have impact. First impressions do matter and that’s probably why so many researchers try to pad their portfolios with examples of user interfaces.
But this is the worst thing you can do.
If you’re a user experience researcher, you don’t design screens. You design experiences.
Instead of creating amateurish mock-ups in PowerPoint or — even worse — presenting someone else’s design as your own, use your portfolio to showcase the research work that underpins the designs you’ve been involved with. What were the business objectives? How did you ensure they were met? At what points in the process did you involve users?
Research projects can still be presented visually. Do a quick search for ‘usability testing infographic’ and you’ll see what I mean. And there are many deliverables in user experience research that are inherently visual: personas, user journey mapping and expert reviews are three that jump immediately to mind.
2 — Show the journey, not just the destination
A second common mistake I see in portfolios is that they focus on the deliverables and not the journey.
For example, a research portfolio case study on personas might show the final personas, perfectly formatted, ready for a magazine.
But that’s not the challenge.
The challenge when developing personas is doing the field research and analysing the data. Creating the personas themselves is the icing on the cake. So although it’s less photogenic, you need to explain the research behind the deliverable. (You can still show the deliverable — just make sure to show your working, as my Maths teacher used to say).
Another reason to show the journey is that it keeps you honest. I saw a portfolio once that described how the candidate had designed a successful iPhone app. What he forgot to mention was that he was part of a team of 8, and his main contribution was to run a usability test of a prototype.
Claiming other people’s work as your own is a surefire way to lose out at interview.
To make sure you show the journey, tell the story of your involvement:
- Explain the business problem you were trying to solve. Just one or two sentences will do. If you struggle with this, try to remember how the project started: how did your internal or external client articulate the problem? In the context of a story, this is the trigger that starts us off.
- Describe your approach. Of the universe of possible research methods, why did you pick that one? Remember that research takes place in a business context and your approach doesn’t need to be some mythical, ideal approach; it needs to be an approach that offers the best value. In a story, this phase is known as the quest.
- Present your results. Be brief, but show enough detail to make it clear that you know what you’re talking about. Describe one of the major problems you encountered with the study and how you solved it. In any good story, the hero always has to overcome difficulties and this is the place to show you are a problem solver.
- Describe the impact of your work. Relate your findings back to the business problem. Did you solve it? If not, what did you learn that you will apply to your next project? This is the resolution to your story where you, and your client, both became a little wiser.
3 — Assume you have 1 minute to land your dream job
You spend hours on your portfolio. Sadly, I will spend one minute looking at it. After one minute, I’ll decide to spend another 5 minutes on it — or send a rejection letter. I know, it’s brutal.
But it’s not dissimilar to the way you behave when you land on a web page. You scan it and then quickly make a decision to invest more time or hit the back button. You can be brutal too.
But this means you must design your portfolio for skim reading. Not only does this mean it’s more likely to get looked at, it also demonstrates your skills in user experience: it shows you know how people read. It’s a great example of the medium being the message.
(And if you don’t know how people read, why not usability test your portfolio with friends and family?)
In terms of overall size, I know this may not be a great help, but you’re after the Goldilocks portfolio: not too long, not too short, but just right. One way to achieve this is to ruthlessly cut out duplicate projects. If you’ve done three card sorting studies and two paper prototyping exercises, I know that it’s tempting to include all of them. But don’t. Instead, show just one case study of each type. Aim for 1–2 pages per project and keep it visual.
4 — Focus on the details
This one seems obvious — we all know it’s rule number one when you’re putting your CV together.
But hold on: there an interesting twist when you’re applying for a job in user experience. Both user research and design are inherently detail-oriented professions.
Of course your spelling and grammar will be ruthlessly examined. But it goes beyond this.
- What font will you use? (Hint: it won’t be Comic Sans).
- What kind of layout grid will you use for your case studies?
- Where is your call to action?
Once again: the medium is the message.
The history of your working life
One final point. Your user experience portfolio also acts as a scrapbook of your working life. When you update it (and you should be updating it every few months), make sure you keep the earlier versions. This is a powerful way of showing you just how far you’ve travelled.
I asked a few colleagues to comment on this article before I posted it and one reviewer raised this interesting paradox:
How can I compensate for a lack of experience without lying?
(A variation on this question is: how can I show more breadth when my day-to-day job is recruiting users / running card sorts / acting as an assistant to someone more senior?)
I think this paradox has more than one resolution — here’s two.
One approach is to set yourself assignments. Let’s say you’ve never run a usability test and this is the glaring hole in your portfolio. In that case, be your ideal client and run a test. Pretend that you’ve been commissioned by the BBC to run a usability test of the iPlayer installation process. How did you plan and execute the test? How did you recruit users? How did you analyse the data?
In many ways, carrying out self-assignments shows more dedication than simply turning up for work to deliver on a real project — and it also shows it’s all your own work, not someone else’s that you’ve hijacked. If you need some ideas for self-assignments, take my online user experience training course where you get the opportunity to carry out user research and design activities on 5, real life projects.
If the idea of a self-assignment doesn’t motivate you, a second approach is to volunteer. There are no end of charities and non-profits who could boost donations with the kinds of insight you could provide with a usability test.
Why not join the thousands of other people taking my free online user experience lessons?