A Great Portfolio Isn’t a Collection of Deliverables

by Jared Spool

A great portfolio is a collection of the stories that describe your best work.

As the demand for UX professionals increases, there’s been a renewed discussion on the importance of having a portfolio. There are even some, like Whitney Hess in a recent SxSW panel, who assert that because UX isn’t really about the deliverables, UX pros shouldn’t have a portfolio.

I think quite the opposite. I think that a UX portfolio is an important part of representing what we can do. It’s far more important than a résumé, which is usually just a history of our employment with a few bullets that talk about major accomplishments.

The résumé shows our journey, just like how a map of the world shows the path Magellan took to circumnavigate the globe. But that map doesn’t tell of Magellan’s skill in taking on challenges and overcoming obstacles. That’s what a great portfolio does.

Recently someone showed me some UX designer’s nicely-designed portfolio. It had a beautiful layout and highlighted several deliverables, such as wireframes, sketches, and personas. It even went so far as to explain what a wireframe was and how personas are helpful in the UX process, in case the hiring manager didn’t know those things.

However, what this nicely-designed portfolio failed to do was tell me about the designer’s accomplishments. He didn’t talk about the projects he created the wireframe for. He didn’t say how he developed the personas or how they were used. He didn’t talk about places where the project got complicated and he worked through it, producing an elegant outcome given the constraints.

These are things that smart hiring managers look for. They want to see what you do when faced with challenge, such as a short delivery time, a difficult co-worker, hardware constraints that reduce the design options, or all three at the same time. They want to see the thinking that got you from the idea through to the final design. They want to see what really tested your skills and experience in ways you’ve never been tested before, and how you produced something even you didn’t think you were capable of.

Go ahead. Build an awesome portfolio of your story. Talk about the accomplishments you’re most proud of and don’t leave out any detail that shows what you can do when the world decides to test you. That’s the portfolio of a great designer.

[To be fair to Whitney, she wrote a wonderful article that says all this and more for UX Matters. You should read it.]