24 May 2013

Crafting a Stellar Portfolio

Whether you're in the middle of a job hunt, day-dreaming, or just the consientious type who wants to be fired up when the time comes, check out these expert tips on creating a stellar portfolio...

Maintain a Portfolio Scrapbook

We tend to leave portfolio-making for job hunt time, but you'll save a whole lot of stress (and enjoy the self-love) if you document your achievements as you go.  Your day-today portfolio doesn't have to be pitch perfect and print ready.  You really just need a file or a folder where you can dump screenshots and photos for later use.

Artifacts: Your "Portfolio scrapbook" might house a nice mood board, a great wireframe, a photo of you in action, or pics (with permission) of happy users and stakeholders.  Trying to land these artefacts months or years afterwards is difficult to impossible and you don't want to end up looking back at years of hard work, without a shred of evidence to show for it (especially likely in an industry where our outcomes are so ephemeral).

Results (stats & testimonials): You'll thank yourself later if you take time to stash away evidence of the impact of your work.  This could be changes to web stats, changes to learner test scores or learning gains, outcomes from user research or testing, and definitely, any testimonials you get from clients, for example, via email or Linked In.

Stories:  You know that amazing moment of epiphany, that incredible ideation workshop or that ingenius solution you came up with? They are doomed to fade from memory, so now and again, why not take a few minutes to summarize the stories of your projects before they've slipped away.  Jot down blurbs about key moments, demonstrative events or the entertaining bits--whatever will help you tell a good design story and show your thinking to future employers later on.  At minimum describe the various roles you took on and how you contributed.

Create your Portfolio

Ian Fenn, despite his years of extensive experience, with massive companies across multiple sectors, Ian Fenn found himself forced into making a portfolio, largely against his will.  Amazingly, he turned out what became, possibly one of the most admired portfolios around.  After about the 50th person asked him for a copy to use as a model of portfolio best practice, he started sharing his approach more systematically, and it was at a recent talk in Cambridge, that he gave the following advice:
  • 30 sec's to impress: Recruiters will check against certain criteria and most will look at your portfolio for an average of 30 sec.
  • Define UX: UX knowledge varies widely so include your version of what UX is (and if possible, how you can solve their problem.) 
  • Scope: Keep the portfolio 1-10 pages long, don't include mediocre work, don't just stuff in everything. A portfolio Its advertising, not a collection of deliverables or everything youve done. Fenn said "I ask the client what they're looking for and then bring out work that matches it"
  • Format: Some use web, but Fenn found PDF worked ideally for him because its sharable and printable. He created the original in pages but would use Keynote in future (makes pages easier to rearrange and remove for various jobs)
  • Contents: A Cover page sets the scene. An "About you" page is a summary of who you are, what UX is from your point of view and what your approach is, with a note on deliverables. The "Client list" can be displayed as a showcase of logos for great effect. "Case studies" show your work, capabilities and results. "Additional projects" is a chance to include a list of other work as blurbs. "Training" is optional but if you have a lot of specialized training to show, do it and logos can be used here as well. "Testimonials" are the social proof and Fenn got his from LinkedIn and highlighted keywords.
  • Design: Fenn used a high-impact minimalist design with generally not more than 100 words on a page. For each case study, he used only one large hi-res photo, and light text was divided into a set of consistent categories that matched his process. "Photos of people sticking up sticky note are really boring now." he warned. Stand out.
  • Keep it very simple to respect varied knowledge about the field (recruiters won't necessarily be that privy).  Nick Morgan echos this in a UXPA article:
 "hiring managers don’t care how creative your portfolio design is as much as they care how creative your UX work is. Furthermore, they say when a portfolio is too creative, it distracts from the work they are evaluating. Let your content—not the container—be the shining star."
  • Case Studies: Fenn recommends you do one in depth "Deep dive" three page case study and a set of smaller ones at one spread each. With your case studies, Fenn covered certain sectors, and he advised you choose projects that have a good story to tell. Show breadth if you can. Avoid including projects that are too similar and make sure what you include reflects what you want to be doing in your next job. He included one image for each case study and each was a different deliverable.
  • Headings: Fenn referenced both the STAR (Situation, Task, Action and Result) and SOARA as options for information headers, but noted that by chance, he had settled on "The brief", "What I did", "Key tools and deliverables" and "The results". Deliverables included workshops, stakeholder interviews, content inventory, content analysis, etc.)
  • Handling NDAs - Rather than violate Non-discolosure agreements by including protected work (which shows you probably can't be trusted) or attempting to anonymize facts, he created a case study anyway, and simply " replaced the photo with a placeholder box that said "subject to client NDA".
  • Difficult clients - "Present the problem as a constraint" he recommends. For example, in one case study he wrote "since the company did not allow access to end users I..."
  • Light portfolio? Just starting? Fenn recommends you do voluntary work to build it up. Design an app or use almost hypothetical projects to show what you're capable of. Join a "Hack Day".
  • Process: To show process, include Decisions you made and why
  • How far back do you go? "Story more important than the age of a project." said Fenn, so if it was a great project to include, do it, but don't used imagery that looks dated, and there's no need to highlight the dates. (he had an example of a long-term project that went from 2003-2005) 
"Approach the portfolio as you would any design project.
"Clients want to know how you think, and what you can do. Its important to demonstrate your thinking cause thats yours."

There is more stellar advice on UX Portfolios and interviews in a special freely available issue of UXPA magazine.