User research portfolios — belly up to the BAR

Lori Birtley
UXR @ Microsoft
Published in
4 min readFeb 10, 2022

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A few years ago, I had a job interview that required a research portfolio presentation. I panicked. It was the first time I’d been asked to prepare a research portfolio. Although I have plenty of research experience, I didn’t know how to organize and share my work. I received valuable coaching advice to structure my presentation using the BAR method. B = background, A = action, R = results. I used the BAR method to organize each of the three projects I presented.

Yes, I received and accepted the job offer. Since then, I’ve recommended the BAR method for structuring research portfolios whenever I’ve mentored or coached user research candidates. Let’s dig into a few details of why this method worked well for me and can for you, too.

Background

How did this research project start?

User researchers are curious. User research interviewers are always interested in why you did the research you did. Were you fulfilling a broad cross-company mandate? Did you conduct the research as part of your educational program? Were you part of a larger v-team? Did you deeply investigate details of an interaction? If you chose this research project, how did you pick this research project out of all the research projects you could have done?

If there was a particular reason that you were selected to be involved in your research project, state it in this section. For example, “I was asked by the management team to conduct this research because I’d successfully interviewed external customers in the past.” Interviewers are thinking about why you would be a good hire, so give them examples of why you were involved in the research projects you’re presenting.

In this section. be clear about the scope of the research and your specific role. Examples from large cross-team efforts are often very impressive and compelling. However, interviewers want to know what you personally did. After all, they are thinking about hiring you, not you and all the others who collaborated with you. As a side note, very few things are more off putting and unethical than taking credit for work you didn’t personally do.

Action

What did you do?

Interviewers will be interested in the methodology you selected, why you selected it, and how you completed the project. In this section, you can outline the research process and your actions along the way. A typical workflow might include selecting the methodology, obtaining stakeholder buy in, developing discussion guides/surveys, conducting the research, analyzing the inputs, and sharing the findings with the stakeholders.

If there were specific challenges to overcome, state them here. For example, if you had a tight timeframe, non-existent budget, a hard recruit, or difficult stakeholders, stating it in this section shows the interviewers how you faced and overcame problems. As an interviewer, I’ve been in portfolio reviews in which candidates really impressed me with their creativity, skills, and ability to overcome hurdles. One candidate talked about doing research with police officers in their police cars during their patrols. Another candidate talked about doing research in hospital emergency rooms. My thought process in both cases was “If they were able to earn people’s trust and work in those environments, they are going to be able to handle anything in this job.”

During this section, try not to over-love your methodology. Interviewers are quite familiar with and have conducted research using many different methodologies themselves. Interviewers always want to know the research methods you’re familiar with and it is an important part of your resume. No candidate is expected to be fluent in all research methods. Research methods can be learned. Interviewers are more interested in how you approached your research problem, structured your thinking, completed the research, and delivered the results.

Results

What were the results from your actions?

As user researchers, we all strive to make our research actionable. In this section of the portfolio review, interviewers will be interested in how you prioritized your research findings to influence change and what changes occurred based on the research.

Sometimes, it is difficult to measure how impactful user research was on the ultimate product, service, or deliverable. If you can, show clear examples of how your research influenced or changed outcomes. Some examples of actions could be a reduction in the number of steps a customer had to take to perform a task, improved satisfaction scores, identification of key target audiences, a more usable and useful design, identifying customers’ jobs to be done, or a segmentation of your user base.

Not all research projects lead to a rosy outcome. Don’t shy away from citing these examples. In my portfolio review, I talked about a product team decision to delay the release of a new service. The research showed that the service didn’t include some of the core capabilities that customers needed. Nobody wants to delay the release of a product or service, but this example showed how seriously the research results were taken.

Conclusion

If you’re searching for a clear, understandable way to present your work during a user research portfolio review, consider the BAR method of organization. Huge thanks to Joe Hallock for introducing me to the BAR method and reviewing this article. Thanks also to Angela Moulden for her review and feedback. Opinions expressed in this article are my own and not necessarily the views of my employer.

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Lori Birtley
UXR @ Microsoft

Principal User Research Manager at Microsoft with a long history in marketing, product planning, and research for software products and services.