“I can’t remember what I did for that project, it was 8 months ago!”
“I can’t find all the artifacts and deliverables from the project.”
“I can’t get this case study written.”
If you can relate to any of these frustrations, then you’re not alone. I hear frustrations like these from my UX Portfolio Formula students all the time. And they all have one thing in common…
They didn’t document their projects.
Why documenting is critical
Memory is a fragile thing and relying upon it to recall complicated details of projects past isn’t advised.
When you fail to document your projects as you go, you’re setting yourself up for difficulty. It’s near-impossible to remember all the details of why you made certain design decisions or how you came to a certain conclusion without some kind of written reminder.
Sans memory aids, you’ll end up with incomplete project case studies inside your portfolio, weak bullets for your resume, and shallow talking points for interviews that put too much emphasis on final deliverables because you can’t remember the details of the “why” behind what you did.
In UX, there’s never a linear path from the start of a project to final deliverables. It’s a twisted journey of rights and wrongs, assumptions and hypothesis, surprises and roadblocks, and as always, the unexpected and sometimes obvious ideas that jump out at us midway through.
These details—the challenges and the a-ha moments—are exactly what the users of your UX portfolio want to hear about.
These narratives are the bedrock of the content for your portfolio, resume, LinkedIn profile, and conversations during the interview process. But if you don’t diligently document your projects as you go, you’ll more than likely forget the best bits—and struggle to share your stories in a powerful way.
Meet your new friend, the Career Project Diary. This is where you’ll store all of those plot twists and revelations—and expertise.
What is a Career Project Diary?
The purpose of maintaining a diary is to have one central place where you document every project you work on throughout your entire career. By doing this all in one place and reviewing it at least once a quarter, you’ll always have a record of what you worked on.
- Who is it for? It’s for you. The Career Project Diary is not something you make public or publish on your website; it’s a private record of what you worked on. Think of it as breadcrumbs for your career.
- How much detail does it contain? Think of it as a running list of resume bullet points for every project you’ve worked on. You want to provide as much detail as possible (we’ll get to that shortly).
- How should I take notes? You can treat it like a brainstorm for each project. Don’t worry about grammar, spelling, or formality—you’ll get to that later. The goal is to capture everything so you don’t forget about it later. Don’t forget to include photos, sketches, files, and links as well.
- How often should it be updated? At a minimum, you should update this once a quarter. However, it’s best to try and update it each week. If you do it weekly, it’ll still be fresh in your head; if you wait to do it all quarterly, then you’ll have to spend a lot of time thinking and it’ll probably take twice as long. I’ve found that setting a meeting with myself for 15 minutes every Friday to quickly update this document does the trick.
How to create your Career Project Diary
Decide on a medium
The only requirement I’ll give you is that it MUST be electronic. Why? Because if it’s electronic, you can quickly cut and paste content from your Career Project Diary (CPD) into your resume, LinkedIn, and portfolio. If it’s in a cute physical notebook, you’ll waste time typing things out, and it’s not searchable! Use whatever you’re most comfortable with.
- Create a template to follow. Updating your Career Project Diary (CPD) will be a lot easier if it follows the same format for each project. The structure really breaks down into three parts.
- Part 1: Project overview. This is information you’ll write once, at the beginning of each project. It’s meant to give a quick summary and the crucial context that helps you remember the big picture of the project. This section should include:
Sign up for my newsletter and get this Career Project Diary template for Google Docs. It also has prompts and more tips to help you document your projects as you go.
- The company or client
- Key problem you’re solving or project goal
- Team members
- Constraints or interesting limitations
- Part 2: Project notes. This section is ongoing notes that you’ll write, ideally weekly, about the project. The goal is to capture everything you did so that you can pick and choose the highlights to use in your portfolio, resume, and job interview discussions.
- Think back to your elementary school years when you had to write out your method or steps for science experiments. This is what you should be aiming for. It’s documentation, not essay-level sentence structure.
- This section could include:
- Steps (eg. “Wrote discussion questions for user research interviews to learn more about how …”)
- Results (eg. “User research revealed high-level findings of …”)
- Challenges (eg. “Multiple meetings to help stakeholders understand research findings.”)
- Impact (eg. “Product roadmap was re-prioritized based on user research findings.”)
As a bonus, here are some pro-tips for writing the project notes. Be intentional about going below the surface. For example, don’t just say “Created prototype of user onboarding for the mobile app.”. Provide a bit more details such as:
- How long you spent creating the prototype
- Which screens were included
- What tool did you use
- What is static or interactive
- Did you collaborate with anyone on it
- Part 3: learnings, outcomes, and accolades. Write this after you finish the project and take time to reflect. Here are some prompts to help you:
- What worked well in the project?
- In hindsight, what would you do differently?
- If you’d had more time, what would you have done?
- If you’d had more budget, what would you have done?
- What data do you have to quantify the results of the project?
- What quotes from stakeholders or users can you include to qualify the project outcome?
- Start with your most recent project. Don’t feel like you need to go back in time and do this for every single project you’ve worked on. To keep this manageable and stress-free, start documenting the project you’re working on now, or the last one you finished.
- Make it a habit and put it on your calendar. The ONLY way you’ll stay consistent in updating your Career Project Diary is if you make it a priority. Translation? Get it on your calendar. Go to your calendar now and make a fifteen-minute recurring meeting with yourself so you can write down your project notes for that week.
How to use your Career Project Diary
Remember, the purpose of this document is to jog your memory—not to be the exact text you’ll use on your resume, portfolio, LinkedIn, etc. You’ll want to do some editing and curating as you decide what the most important details are for each project.
However, a huge benefit of this document is that you’ll be able to give it a read before interviews and confidently go into them with reminders of project details that perhaps didn’t surface as exact bullets on your resume or sentences in your portfolio.
Go forth and document your projects in real-time
The surest way to not get interviews is to be a procrastinator, not document your projects as you go, and then end up rushing to update your portfolio and resume when a cool opportunity comes your way. But now, you know better.
Going forward, you’ll prioritize updating your project details document. You’ll always have a record of what you did and why you did it. And instead of rushing to finish your portfolio and update your resume, you’ll have breathing room to reflect, review, and revise before you apply and go to interviews.
Want to read more by Sarah Doody?
by Sarah Doody
Sarah Doody is a User Experience Designer, Entrepreneur, and Educator. She helps companies assess product ideas, understand customers, and design and optimize the experience. She created the popular weekly newsletter, The UX Notebook. Sarah is a contributing author to InVision, UX Magazine, UX Mastery, UX Matters, and has been published in the New York Times. Sarah is committed to helping people learn to think like a designer. She does this through online and in-person UX education programs on topics including user research, storyboarding, rapid prototyping, and creating a UX portfolio. In 2011, she created the curriculum for and taught General Assembly’s first 12-week UX immersive, the genesis of their popular UX programs which are now taught worldwide.