UX Portfolio Lessons: Timeless & Thoughtful Storytelling

Notes from my 2024 class on building better UX portfolios

UX Portfolio Lessons: Timeless & Thoughtful Storytelling
Mashup of photos from eskay lim (speech bubble), Evan Wise (person), and Ben Kolde (phone) on Unsplash

Another June, another session closed of the UX Certificate that I teach. One important aspect of the classroom is what I call a “shareback”. I take all the individualized feedback given to each student, summarize it, and share it with the class.

It’s a type of group metacognition. By highlighting to the class what happened among their peers, students can learn about lessons they haven’t been exposed to yet. Mistakes are critical to learning, and a shareback is a way to learn by proxy of someone else’s misstep.

To wrap up my course, I sent out an email that contained 7 lessons for building UX portfolios based on their final assignments. Below is the excerpt of that email that contains those lessons.

Excerpt start

  1. There is an excellent set of questions for the “Lessons Learned” conclusion of your case studies. By answering the 3 questions below, you’ll have a great answer for your case study conclusion, and also a great story for a recruiter/design manager 😁:
    1. What didn’t you know at first?
    2. Where were you proven wrong?
    3. What emerged later as a learning?
  2. Your case study section titles should be a summary of the full story. Most people only read the titles and look at the images, so they should understand the gist of your case. If it only says “Problem, Research, Solution”, the reader literally has no idea what’s going on.
  3. On the same note, remember that each paragraph should be a self-contained point you’re trying to make. Starting a paragraph with “Also…” or “Then…” makes the reader think they missed a point.
  4. Your portfolio Home and About pages are not timestamped, so write in a timeless manner. Saying things like “…with four years experience” or “…recently started doing UX” will come to haunt you when you realize two years later that you have forgotten to update your portfolio. Write as if it’s something that will always be true no matter when someone comes across it.
  5. For your personas, there’s no need to include the full image with Goals, Problems, Age, Occupation, and Favourite Taco Topping. Instead you can try describing the main detail about them that will progress your case’s story. You can also review the Jobs to Be Done frame work from the [[Moodle]] readings as it’s more concise than the persona image.
    1. E.g. “The redesign of UNI was targeted at teachers who teach several subjects in a very short window of time, given the limited resources of the school. They often have outdated laptops, limited connectivity, and Android phones with insufficient storage for installing bulky apps.”
  6. Two minor details with regards to privacy and spam:
    1. Never display your actual email publicly. I made that mistake some years ago and I have paid the price of the most irritating spam ever since. Use a contact form instead, or send them to your LinkedIn.
    2. Don’t post your classmates or client names—or anyone’s names who aren’t public figures—in your portfolio without their permission. I noticed this several times in some people’s “Team” section in a case study or the “Client Feedback” section. It’s not proper form in terms of respecting their privacy. For reasons that are not relevant to you, it may well be the case that someone doesn’t want to associate themselves with the project and that’s their right.
  7. Finally, remember that portfolios are simultaneously a resume and a form of self-expression. That means you should always take multiple points of feedback, consider them all with a grain of salt (everything I said included), and balance their efficacy externally with your own personality. If you like your portfolio, you will present it more confidently and clearly. On the other hand, if it doesn’t resonate with others, then it doesn’t matter how much you like it 🤣. To that end, when you look for inspiration from other designers’ portfolios remember the following:
    1. If the designer is successful, you never know if their portfolio was actually useful in their career progression. In my case, a lot of my work came from referrals and the portfolio was only considered after the person who hired me had met me.
    2. Inversely, just because someone has a beautiful portfolio it doesn’t mean they are successful or that it’s worth copying.
    3. Make sure that you actually take inspiration from designers relevant to your own goals. I often made the mistake of looking at so-and-so designer’s portfolio and trying to figure out how to make my portfolio more like theirs, but ultimately they weren’t designers whose careers interested me.

Excerpt end

There’s an infinite amount of lessons to be shared about building a good portfolio, but dumping them all on students won’t give you the best result. This year, these were the most important lessons for this group. Next year, maybe some will carry over but because of the way students shape the direction of the class, there might be other nuances worth highlighting.

That’s the power of a shareback: it creates notes shaped by the needs of the learner.