I get the sense that designers spend a lot of time in design school learning how to represent themselves and their work through their portfolios. I wish I could say that the same is true for researchers. And it often shows when I sit through research candidates’ portfolio reviews. Regardless of how much time you spent (or didn’t spend) in school learning about UX portfolios, it’s a critical part of the UXR interview process and one that you should be prepared for. In this post, I’ll share some tips for how to structure your presentation, mistakes to avoid, and talk about whether as a UXR you need an online portfolio.
How to structure your portfolio presentation
Before preparing your portfolio presentation, make sure that you check with your recruiter to see if the company you’re applying with has a specific brief for your presentation. In general, you’re usually given about 45 minutes to an hour to talk about your work. I advice candidates to leave 10–15 minutes of time for questions from the interview panel. The following structure should work for UXR portfolio reviews at most tech companies:
- Introduction. You should give the panel an overview of your background. Where did you go to school? What did you study? Where have you worked and in what roles? For more junior candidates, you might want to include how you got into UX research. You might also want to include a slide about your interests/hobbies outside of work. This whole section should take no more than 5 minutes (and you can probably get through it in 2–3 minutes).
- Project case studies. The bulk of your time should be spent here. When describing your research projects, you should present them like case studies. Give the interview panel a full picture of the situation from the beginning to the end of the project. What was the context? What problems were you trying to solve? What did you do and why? What did you learn? And what impact did your work have on the product or organization? Be sure to specify what role you played in the project (this is a good time to use “I” and not “we”). You should also provide lots of details of how you conducted the research for each project (e.g. method, sample size, how you analyzed the data, etc). In my experience, if you really provide all these details and talk about your project like a case study, you’ll probably only have time to talk about 2 projects.
- Wrap-up. Spend a minute or two summarizing who you are and the projects you talked about during your presentation.
- Appendix. You might want to include an appendix with extra details like additional data or charts or excerpts of research plans. That sort of thing might be nice to have if an interviewer asks more detailed questions then you’ll have the materials to support your answer. I always advise candidates to prepare a third project in the appendix just in case they have a quiet interview panel and end up with extra time.
Avoid these seven mistakes
I’ve conducted a lot of interviews at Google and Samsung and I’ve seen a lot of great and not so great portfolio reviews. Here are seven common mistakes that I’ve seen candidates make:
- Not actually putting together a presentation. This doesn’t happen that often but it happens more often than you would think. If you’re asked to give a portfolio presentation, don’t show up with your online portfolio. And don’t show up with a bunch of research study presentations. The whole idea behind this portion of the interview process is for you to show your research planning, synthesis, and communication design skills. Take the time to craft a cohesive presentation.
- Assuming the panel already knows everything about you. In an ideal world, everyone who’s interviewing you would have taken the time to look over your resume and be familiar with your work. But sometimes people have other things come up at work or they’re called in to sit in on an interview at the last minute so they’re not as prepared as they should be. Go into the presentation assuming that the panel doesn’t know you (and honestly even if they’re prepared, they really don’t know you just from looking at your resume). Along with providing them with a brief overview of your background, you should also explain the context behind every project you present.
- Using jargon. Don’t use abbreviations, code names, or jargon. A lot of candidates do this (I’m not exactly sure why?) and what always ends up happening is that an interviewer has to stop them and ask, “What does X mean?” Go into your portfolio presentation assuming that your panel doesn’t know your projects, your domain, and your industry (because in all likelihood they don’t).
- Talking about too many projects. If you talk about too many projects (like 5 or 10), then you’re not going to have time to go into too many details of each one. It’ll be really hard for your panel to evaluate the depth of your research skills. It also shows that you’re not good at prioritizing information and synthesizing data.
- Talking about unreleased projects. It’s really hard to talk about unreleased products in any depth. I’ve seen candidates who either inadvertently or intentionally reveal confidential information (see the next point!). And then there are candidates who end up obscuring so much of the project that it ends up being hard for the panel to get a sense of the candidate’s skills. If you can, avoid talking about unreleased or confidential projects.
- Sharing confidential information. You should never share photos or videos of your research participants in a portfolio review. Or talk about strategy of your current employer or share confidential details around unreleased products. Not only is this behavior unethical, it also likely violates your employer’s non-disclosure agreement (that you probably signed when you were first hired). This type of behavior always gets a no hire from me. I simply can’t trust a UXR who’s unethical. And honestly you’re a lousy UXR if you’re careless about securing your participants’ (and your employer’s) data.
- Talking about your research perspective. I can’t tell you how many research portfolio reviews I’ve sat through where a candidate has told me about their unique perspective on conducting research. The only problem is that rarely have I heard someone actually provide a unique perspective. More often than not candidates describe the user-centered design process. If you’re interviewing at a company that has never hired a user researcher before or if you’re interviewing for a UXR lead role, then it makes sense to talk about your perspective (but be sure to actually have a personal take on the research process). But for most other candidates, I don’t think it’s a good use of your (or your panel’s) time.
Do you need an online portfolio?
I’ve gone back and forth on my opinion around whether or not UXRs need online portfolios. When I first started as a UXR, I always had one and thought everyone should. I came from a web design background so putting together a website wasn’t hard for me to do. At the time (mid 2000s), putting together your own portfolio that looked professional was a big barrier for a lot of UXRs who didn’t have a design or development background.
But today, it’s so easy to get a professional looking website made in a few hours. I recently made one using Squarespace and while their UI isn’t the most intuitive, it wasn’t that hard to put something up that I really liked in about an hour.
I don’t think an online portfolio will make a huge difference in whether you get hired or not … but it might prompt someone to give you an interview. An online portfolio gives you more space to talk about who you are and showcase your work than a resume. In my own experience as a hiring manager, there have definitely been cases where I’ve asked to interview a candidate because they had a compelling online portfolio. It may not have always led to an offer but at least it gave that person a foot in the door.
So given how easy it is to put together an online portfolio today, if you’ve got the time (and some funds for registering a domain name and hosting a site), I think you should invest that time building your professional online presence.
Putting together a good UXR portfolio presentation is a lot of work but it’s a really good way to showcase to your future employer the kind of work you’re capable of doing. Make sure that the actual presentation deliverable (your slides) is well designed (that means using appealing colors, consistent use of specific fonts, not overcrowding slides with text, etc).
Good luck! I’m rooting for you!