Advice for building a product centric portfolio.
Over the past 10 years, I’ve reviewed hundreds of portfolios ranging from designers looking to join design agencies to ones wanting to join technology startups. It’s interesting to see the differences in portfolios and how they’ve evolved as our profession continues to grow and change.
Recently, I’ve reviewed hundreds more for our Design Fellowship—a program to connect designers with rising startups. Whitespace is looking for product designers, and as a designer myself, I know what to look for even when portfolios don’t clearly showcase product design projects. But this puts more work on hiring managers and designers evaluating the work.
I believe today’s product designers (and aspiring product designers) can do a better job to position themselves through their portfolio. To ensure we’re all on the same page, here is my definition of a product designer:
Product designers design from a high-level product and user experience perspective while also executing at the detail-level across interaction, interface and visual design.
So how does one demonstrate this in their portfolio? The following list is my advice to better position yourself as a product designer and help you move closer to your next product design opportunity.
The Portfolio Website
There are two parts to your portfolio: the website and the work. Your website collectively conveys you as a designer. Let’s start here.
1. Show your best work
Product design is relatively new and the appreciation for well-designed applications came with the rise of the iPhone which launched in 2007. Even the most experienced product designers have a limited number of projects to showcase; but that’s okay, what’s more important is depth.
Show your best work as opposed to going for volume. There’s also a psychological reason for this—the perception of the quality of your work is set by what you show. Keep the bar high to set yourself in the top tier.
3–5 projects is sufficient. Hiring managers and designers doing the work of hiring are always time-constrained.
2. Strategically curate your work
The skill set of a product designer is broad; curate the projects you show to highlight those skills. A single project can hone in deeply on one area.
For example, the highlight of one project may have been user-research while on another, it was defining a complex workflow. Organizing by type of experience or industry, showing enterprise and consumer projects, or medical app and music app, could be another approach.
3. Control the narrative
What should visitors see first? Which project should they view first? Make it dead simple to navigate.
In the context of reviewing portfolios for hiring, I’ve always preferred designers to just tell me where to click. At the moment, this is best done with a single column layout with one project stacked on top of the next as opposed to a grid of projects. This treatment combined with showing less projects ensures that what you want seen will get seen, and possibly closely to the order you desire.
And for those that are wondering if they should show their photography or illustration work in their product design portfolio, this also works well. Those can go at the end, after the 3–5 key projects.
4. Show some personality
Product design is collaborative: product designers work cross-functionally with engineers, product managers, sales, customers, etc. Your portfolio is a place to share a little bit about you, not just the work.
There are two areas to show some personality. The first, the look and feel of your website. Keep it simple and let the work shine. I’ll repeat that one again, don’t let your site design compete with the work. The second, the about you section. Show your mug. Make it personal—share your interests, accomplishments, hobbies, and quirks.
The Design Work
The meat of your portfolio is the work. You should show how you approach a problem (essentially your process) along with what you created and how you evaluated your solutions. Let’s break those down a bit more.
5. Present case studies
Product design involves design thinking and design execution. The thinking part includes business goals, user needs, research, hypothesis, synthesis, etc. The execution part, more familiar to most, includes flowcharts, sketching, interfaces, animations, visuals, etc. A case study is the best way to surface and share all the moving parts.
At a minimum, your projects should include a problem–solution statement. Design is about problem solving not just pretty pixels.
Your case study should read like a newspaper—understandable through skimming and more insightful when digging in to the details. Be mindful of the length.
More on what to include in your case studies below.
6. Walk through your process
Remember, your process shows how you approached a problem and the decisions you made to arrive at the solution. Guide your reader through this from beginning to end.
Set the stage by documenting the behind the scenes using design artifacts (competitive audits, empathy maps, personas, etc.) and highlight findings, key insights, constraints, and goals.
For example, if you conducted some early interviews, distill the insights into 3 main points and highlight those in your case study. Did your sales team have metrics on usage? Call those out.
Build a case for the problem and provide enough context for your viewer to understand the challenge(s) you are tackling.
7. Show what you created
What was created as you moved forward in your process? For product design, emphasis should be on the app experience. This includes navigating, completing tasks, interactions, transitions, UI states, etc. Show your work through video recordings every step of the way.
“Give a demo”—walk your viewers through specific features as opposed to having them “click-guessing” through a prototype.
Static screens don’t do justice to a time-based, interactive medium. Showing actual interactions is what separates product design portfolios from others.
8. Show how you evaluated your solutions
Product design involves ideation and iteration. Show breadth in ideation through design options and show depth through iterations.
Breadth in ideation is typically easier to show in the early stages of design when sketching ideas. This is where looking broadly at a problem and volume is key. What’s important to highlight is what drives those ideas. Is one design idea better for users while the other idea prioritizes business goals? Is there an option that sits in the middle?
The counter practice to this is jumping in to create a single design and moving forward. This is not how design should be done.
Iterating on ideas demonstrates depth. This arises inherently through the process of iterating—be it through user testing, internal feedback, or intuition—your depth of understanding becomes apparent through the work. What’s important to highlight are the considerations that led from one iteration to the next and the logic behind those decisions.
9. Share results
Product design, which is problem-solving, involves results. This can come in the the form of quantitative data and/or qualitative feedback. How did your design solution perform? What was the feedback from users?
Product design is never done. Did your solution solve the problem and hit the targeted goals? What are your hypotheses around performance of the implemented design and how could it be improved? What would you investigate next? What did you learn?
Build & Iterate
As you progress in your career, your portfolio will also keep improving over time. Hopefully, this is an encouraging thought to get you moving and get something up.
Here are examples that come close to what I have described:
Tom Petty: http://tom.pe/ (simple, clean. GoCardless case study is a solid example)
Simon Pan: http://simonpan.com/ (extensive case study on Amazon; good but could be broken out to smaller case studies)
Josh Taylor: http://joshuataylordesign.com/ (great work! would have been nice to see some of it in action, for example the full screen search in the Evernote Web App case study)
Kenny Yu’s Zugata Project: http://designkenny.com/zugata.html (solid case study: walking through process, surfacing highlights, and showing appropriate visuals throughout)
If you have a stellar product design portfolio that aligns with the points above, please share in the comments.
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