5 Tips for an Outcome-driven Design Portfolio
In the past year, I doubled the size of my team. I looked at A LOT of Design portfolios. One of the most common patterns I found was very long case studies primarily focused on describing a process that most Designers are already familiar with. Invariably, the first thing I would do was to scroll all the way to end to see what the actual result was. I was amazed to find that many times the final result was either not shown at all, or it was presented as a minor detail that was hard to see or understand. It was as if a chef was trying to get a job by talking about their knife skills instead of their ability to produce great tasting food.
I decided to meet up with some of my fellow Design managers to discuss this phenomenon and gather their ideas for what makes a good Product Design portfolio. By the end of our discussion, it was clear that one of the big issues with design portfolios is the fact that many tend to focus on the process rather than the outcome of a project. With hiring managers often spending only a couple of minutes looking at a portfolio, focusing on the outcome and showing your ability to edit a project down to the essentials are key.
Here are our top 5 tips on how to ensure your Product Design portfolio focuses on what matters most.
1. Start at the end
When showing a case study on your portfolio, the first thing anyone should see is the final version of your work. That’s because the primary goal of your portfolio should be to showcase the result of your process, not the process itself. This can be one image of a representative mock-up, or better yet, a simple animated gif or video showing a key interaction or flow. Also, make sure that whatever you show is pixel-perfect. Check for alignment, spacing, image resolution, and spelling. The goal is to avoid people having to scroll through hundreds of pixels of process before seeing what you actually designed.
2. Skip the stickies
With a huge variety of design process frameworks and methodologies out there today, it has become commonplace to include a picture of a team huddled around a wall of colorful post-its in your portfolio. Unless the case study you’re presenting is about the workshop itself, and what the outcome was, a picture of unreadable stickies doesn’t communicate much. If you feel the stickies are super important to explain your project, one way to make them more relevant and meaningful is to zoom in to a few so they’re readable and to add a caption that explains why you conducted the activity and what the result was — such as “the team aligned on 2 primary goals” or “we analyzed the data and decided to deprioritize a feature”.
3. Process is not that important, impact is
Unless your process was super innovative or insightful, you don’t necessarily need to describe all the different steps you took during a project. What shows that you’re a good designer is not how well you were able to implement a given process, but whether you solved a business or user problem (or both!). In other words, what matters is the impact of your work had for your company and for the people who will use what you designed. One of the best ways to show impact is with numbers. Saying that your designs decreased users’ perception of waiting time by half, or improved the success rate of a given flow by 10%, are very compelling ways of showing the outcome of your work.
4. Define the problem briefly and clearly
The most important information about a design project is usually what the problem was and what solution you came up with. And if you design digital products, you already know this — people don’t read, but they do scan. So whatever text you write on your portfolio should be scannable. For that, keeping the problem definition brief and clear is key.
“If you can’t describe the problem in a sentence, then you don’t truly understand it.”
Choose your words carefully and cut out unnecessary adjectives or adverbs. If you want to add more information, using labels or headings to introduce text such as “Problem” or “My role in the project” is also nice because it allows the reader to decide what they want to read. Lastly, include a one-sentence description for images if they’re not self-explanatory or if it’s not evident why they’re there.
5. Be outcome-driven beyond your portfolio
Having an outcome-driven portfolio can really help you get the attention of hiring managers, but it will only be authentic if you prioritize outcome over process in your day-to-day as a designer, too. This is something you can start doing today by having a more outcome-driven mindset. What that means is that you need to be able to adapt, negotiate, and even compromise on your design process to help your team solve problems. I find it is common for designers to try to convince their teams to implement new processes — more research, more brainstorming, more design reviews. In my experience, this often results in designers being excluded from decisions because instead of contributing to solving problems, your suggestions may be perceived as just adding more work for everyone. Once you’ve helped the team reach a few successful outcomes, then you’ll have enough trust and credibility to start suggesting better processes. Just as in your portfolio, focus on outcomes first, and process second.
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Thanks to Derek Jones and Sarah Mills for the insightful discussion and portfolio tips, to Jake Mitchell for editing this article, and to Anndo Ko for the beautiful illustrations.