What makes a good UX researcher portfolio? Part 1: Overview

Before focusing on any one part of building a portfolio, I want to outline the general components needed to make one. These observations were made from viewing both undergraduate and undergraduate portfolios at various colleges, as well as from reading various articles about the expectations hiring managers have for UX researchers and designers.

Building a portfolio is very tough to do. Designing a portfolio website is much easier, yet so many UX researchers and designers fail to spend enough time on this task. I will focus on discussing how to design a portfolio in future posts and will only provide a brief mention of actually building it in this post.

By “building”, I am referring to two components:

  1. Generation of content that can be used in the portfolio
  2. Creation of a medium for the portfolio (in this case, a website)

Generating content through independent or group collaborations is extremely difficult and time consuming. Projects can take a few days (like a hack-a-thon) but will usually take a few weeks, months, or even years.

The good news is that designing a good portfolio to showcase your work will not take this amount of time.

The bad news is that designing a good portfolio requires constant updates of the content. Many great designers simply stop updating their portfolios after finishing their undergraduate or graduate degrees, cheating themselves out of showcasing their work and design process to the public even though this work will often reach more users than a school project will.

Creating the medium for the content is much easier now than in past years. Companies like WordPress, Cargo, Behance, and Dribbble, just to name a few, let designers and researchers host websites for free or for reasonable prices. Knowledge of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript are still great to have but are not necessary for creating a portfolio.

The good news here, of course, is the time saved. UX professionals who intend to focus on building websites may be more inclined to build their own portfolio from scratch to show off their abilities. While I am improving these web development skills, my strength is as a UX researcher and designer, not as a developer. For now, I am thankful that WordPress has allowed me to build a portfolio with my limited knowledge of this field.

The bad news is that too many researchers and designers over-rely on templates that may not be the most effective for conveying information. Templates also may overly constrain a site. Usually templates can be changed as needed (as I did on my own website), but it is tempting to just leave a template as-is rather than diving into code to figure out how to make the slight adjustments that would make a page more ideal in terms of its organization, visual appearance, or textual presentation.

By “designing”, I am referring to three overlapping components:

  1. Organization of the content
  2. Visual presentation of the content
  3. Textual presentation of the content

As I mentioned above, too many portfolios are lazily designed. The image and the textual content is there, but there is little thought put into the actual experience that recruiters and others with hiring power will experience when navigating your portfolio. If you can’t present your projects in a compelling way, recruiters will not browse your site.

For example, as fellow Duke alumni Alex Cornell recently pointed out in his satirical portrayal of common portfolio flaws, some portfolios are overly vague in the way in which they present their work. Certainly, this is an issue since recruiters will not waste their time trying to figure out what your project involved, no matter how great it was, if you can’t clearly articulate your thoughts on the project.

While his list is not meant to be exhaustive, there is one issue I have with his suggestion for improving a portfolio:

This is how you make the worst portfolio ever. Do not do this. If this looks like your website, change your website. It’s very easy to fix: stop stating the obvious and show off your work instead.

Yes, he is right in the sense that you must present your work clearly and concisely, both in terms of the images you choose to display and the text you write. There is definitely a large set of portfolios out there that cannot articulate what exactly the work was about. However, the last sentence in the quote above shows what I have found is wrong with most portfolios and what may arguably be more likely to make a portfolio unimpressive.

From browsing portfolios and reading HR and critiques from senior UX researchers and designers, the most common issues with portfolios seem to be:

  1. Clarity
  2. Conciseness
  3. Context

The first two issues are the ones Cornell criticizes in his post and are certainly things that must be addressed in designing a portfolio. Yet I believe the third point, context, is what is most often neglected in portfolios. Given that recruiters are browsing various portfolios, “describing” a project by displaying a single photo of the final product and a brief description of what the final product does will not accurately portray to the recruiter what you did, much less why the product matters or why you chose to make the product (“for a class project” should not be the answer to either one of these)

Writing a project description in a paragraph and then showing a really cool demo video or a beautiful screenshot of your app is great since you are demonstrating that you can create a quality product. Yet you are still neglecting vital details about why you did the project, how you did it, and who you did it with, just to name a few of the details you’ve overlooked!

Let me pick just one of these pieces of essential information that is often neglected. In such a multidisciplinary and collaborative field, proper credit must be given since you are rarely working on something on your own. If you are, that’s great! Make sure you point that out. Yet since many young UX researchers and designers have limited (if any) work experience, most of their portfolio will be school projects that involved multiple team members.

Don’t try and take all the credit for the project since this will almost never be the case, be it in school projects or in industry. You’re selling your teammates short by claiming their skill set and selling yourself short by failing to emphasize your own skill set and how it helped determine the success of the project.

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